Published on OregonLive 19/9/2019
Cohen is co-founder and executive director of the Portland Harbor Community Coalition. Rojas is the associate director at Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods and is a member of the Portland Harbor Community Coalition Executive Steering Committee.
The Portland Harbor is a federal Superfund site, contaminated with a stew of toxic substances left behind by industry from over the last century. In January 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency released a cleanup plan, or Record of Decision, that called for dredging some of the most toxic hot spots. Crafted with input from tribes and impacted communities, the plan would have put Portland on track toward river restoration, albeit more slowly and with less commitment to getting the job done than concerned communities would have liked.
In October 2018, Trump’s EPA changed course, proposing to significantly scale down the amount of dredging required at this Superfund site. Changes to the cleanup plan recommended by EPA would save polluters some $35 million, while threatening to elevate the risks of cancer and other health problems for decades to come. If adopted, this weakened Portland Harbor cleanup will read as a textbook case of environmental injustice.
EPA proposed weakening the plan after NW Natural lobbied for dramatically reducing the scope of the cleanup. The scaled-down plan would leave highly contaminated sediments in the river over 17 acres and along riverbanks, and would reduce remediation of groundwater contamination.
Recently, a group of companies Arkema, Inc., The Marine Group LLC, Evraz Inc., and Schnitzer Steel Industries Inc., asked EPA to weaken the cleanup—leaving toxic contamination in the Willamette River to expose future generations, while saving more money for polluters. Fortunately, on September 20, EPA met with the four corporations to turn down their recommendations to redo 16 years of research concerning Portland Harbor health and environmental risks, tribal fishing, and fish contamination. The existing research and data are “of suitable quality and generally acceptable,” according to an EPA letter on the matter. But in the long run, how can impacted communities ensure the lobbying of these or other parties will not continue to be a threat, hampering the much-needed cleanup of the river?
Portland’s communities of color, people experiencing homelessness, and surrounding tribes will continue to be the hardest hit by disproportionate impacts if the cleanup does not move forward. The most at-risk populations are those who rely on fish as part of their diet. This includes tribal members exercising treaty fishing rights, African Americans, immigrants and refugees, and housed and unhoused area residents. Women of child–bearing age and pregnant women are advised to never eat a single resident fish in Portland Harbor.
Impacted communities deserve a full remediation, which is why all current and future threats to public health are unacceptable. The EPA should not revisit the Record of Decision or weaken its efforts to finally clean up this longstanding environmental hazard. Instead, it should uphold the promises made to people whose health is at stake.