PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — You would never know it from the surface, but underneath the water of the Willamette River in downtown Portland, there’s a huge problem. Twenty years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency designated a ten-mile stretch of the lower Willamette—between the Broadway Bridge and Sauvie Island—as seriously contaminated.
Called the Portland Harbor Superfund Site, it is the biggest of 13 superfund sites in Oregon, and about 1,300 nationwide.
“You know, sites like this that receive the designation of Superfund receive that designation because they are some of the most-contaminated, largest, complex sites in the county, and this site is no exception,” explained Caleb Shaffer of the EPA.
It all goes back to the Willamette River’s industrial past in the early-to-mid 1900s. Shipbuilding and repair, lumber mills, chemical plants, and steel foundries dumped everything from PCBs to pesticides into the river. The chemicals settled into the sediment and riverbanks, posing a danger to humans and wildlife.
Stricter environmental regulations, the Big Pipe Sewer Project completed in 2011, and the passage of time now make the Willamette River mostly safe to swim in.
“The primary risk in this area is really fish consumption, and that’s why we have active restrictions in place because of that risk,” said Shaffer.
The EPA said the Portland Harbor Superfund site cleanup will cost more than a billion dollars and take 13 years—paid for by the 150 companies responsible for dumping the contaminants. The planning is underway for dredging and replacing some 3 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment and riverbank. That’s equivalent to filling up 100,000 garbage trucks. And it’s all in an effort to reclaim and restore the river that helps define downtown Portland.
The EPA is responsible for enforcement and oversight of the superfund cleanup, with support from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and Native American tribes, among others.