Published on Saturday, April 8, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
Polluted Willamette River Sullies Image Of A Green Oregon
by Kim Murphy
PORTLAND, Ore.--The Willamette River, whose citizen-led cleanup in the 1960s inspired the nation to reclaim its waterways, has become so tainted by sewage and industrial waste that it faces being listed as a federal Superfund site--the roster of the country's most polluted places.

The Environmental Protection Agency's Northwest region this week said it would recommend federal cleanup along a 5.5-mile stretch near Portland Harbor because Oregon officials had failed to develop an adequate recovery plan for the nation's 10th-largest river. The announcement was a stunning blow to a state that prides itself on its ecological conscience.

The designation, if approved by officials in Washington, threatens Portland Harbor's competitiveness as a major shipping port. And it virtually guarantees years of litigation over who must pay the cleanup costs. But some environmental groups hailed the decision, saying it would push local officials to get on with the job of removing deadly contaminants from the riverbed.

With the recommended listing, the Willamette joins a growing number of rivers and harbors to be added to the EPA's 1,226 active Superfund sites. Many of the new additions were not originally designated because of the enormous complexity of cleaning them up.

In 1989, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called the Willamette a restoration success story, "one of the cleanest streams of comparable size in the nation." Now, the river that meanders through downtown Portland is the most polluted waterway in the West in terms of toxic industrial pollutants, environmental groups said.

"People look at Oregon as the big green state. We've got growth management, we've got environmental controls. We cleaned up the Willamette. They're using us in many ways as a prototype. Well, the prototype's not working," said Joe Coffman of the Willamette Riverkeeper group.

Amount of Toxins Greatly Increased

The Willamette flows 187 miles, from the Cascade Mountains above Eugene to Portland--some of the most pastoral countryside in the nation.

But in a report released this week, Willamette Riverkeeper showed the amount of toxic chemicals dumped in the river had doubled from 1995 to 1997, to 4.1 million pounds. That includes more than 10,000 pounds of known carcinogens. A yet-to-be-released report on health risks shows that Native Americans who daily eat fish from the river stand a 1 in 10 chance of getting cancer.

What has happened to the Willamette reflects the nature of invisible chemical pollution--some of it due to the clean, high-tech industries Portland invited in as antidotes to dirty polluters of the past.

Since the 1930s, Portlanders had railed about the growing filth of the Willamette, where pulp and steel mills sent globs of sludge floating downriver and raw sewage left fish unable to breathe. Film shot in the 1960s showed healthy fish dropped into the river flailed and died within minutes.

Journalist Tom McCall produced a television documentary on the river so compelling that it helped propel him to the governorship in 1966. Under his administration, Oregon built sewage treatment plants and imposed controls on industrial polluters that became models for the 1972 Clean Water Act.

A National Geographic cover story in 1972 celebrated the Willamette's journey "From Shame to Showcase: A River Restored."

The problem, Oregon officials say, is that decades of pollutants from old shipbuilding yards, wood creosote factories, coal gasification plants and oil terminals in the harbor area had settled down into sediment on the river floor.

Effects of Pollution Found in Wildlife

In 1987, the EPA did its first major sampling of possible pollution effects and found high toxicity levels in crayfish. About the same time, there was a growing awareness that fish in the river were showing elevated levels of dioxin, one of the Earth's deadliest carcinogens, produced by pulp mills.

The effects were already showing up in the environment, said Nina Bell, a lawyer for Northwest Environmental Advocates, who for years has tried to force the city to halt sewage discharges into the river. Biologists documented growing reproductive problems in bald eagles, mink and river otter on the Willamette and the Columbia, which join a few miles downstream from Portland. There were skeleton deformities in fish.

Regulations were adopted in the late 1980s under which mills cut back their discharge of dioxin by as much as 95%. State and federal law also required Oregon's cleaner industries to treat their chemical discharges before pumping them into the river.

But the EPA does permit release of a certain level of industrial pollutants into the river. According to the Riverkeeper's report, semiconductor and related high-tech industries were the second-largest toxic polluters of the Willamette in 1997.

Widespread farming on the upper Willamette has continued to flood the river with pesticide and fertilizer residues. And Portland's antiquated sewer system results in the release of an estimated 3 billion gallons of untreated sewage into the river each year.

"Everybody thought the river had been recovered. And in certain respects it had," said Dean Marriott, Portland's director of environmental services. "What was left were some of the intractable problems: non-point-source pollution, pollution caused by population growth, things that are just harder to get your hands around."

Lending urgency to pollution control efforts was the federal government's announcement last year that every species of salmon and steelhead native to the Willamette was being listed as threatened.

It is that listing, in part, that has prompted Portland officials to seek a delay in their plan to build a new sewage system that by 2011 will nearly eliminate rain-induced overflows into the river. The city already has reduced overflow 50% since 1991, but officials say that delaying completion of the project an additional nine years would also allow them to address the wide variety of urban pollutants that are washing into the river from streets, lawns, parking lots and agricultural areas. Environmentalists are bitterly opposed to any delay.

Meanwhile, there is the issue of cleaning up sediment long ago deposited in the riverbed around Portland Harbor, the subject of the present Superfund action.

Gov. John Kitzhaber and the city of Portland tried to avoid the Superfund designation--and the potential bureaucratic nightmare of federal intervention--by organizing a state-led cleanup effort.

But with about 70 potential polluters involved, the effort foundered. Companies were reluctant to waive the statute of limitations for paying some share of cleanup costs when not every firm was willing to make such a guarantee.

Port of Portland Fears Economic Harm

The Port of Portland now fears that shipping companies may pass by the harbor out of worry that a small spill could leave them potentially liable as partners in a massive cleanup bill.

Moreover, a Superfund designation would threaten the port's plan to dredge and deepen the river channel to remain viable for increasingly large commercial ships. The Corps of Engineers under current policy does not dredge at Superfund sites. Environmental groups have opposed the dredging of the Willamette and Columbia because of concerns it would stir up toxic sediments and threaten juvenile salmon.

"We're a niche port now. Our niche could get smaller, and that's at a time when we expect a tripling of cargo on the West Coast," said David Lohman, director of policy and planning for the port. "Whenever there's a Superfund designation, the fear factor of anybody thinking about using the river goes up."

But Don Francis of the Sierra Club's Portland chapter, a longtime activist on behalf of the Willamette, said Superfund cleanup could provide Oregon with the money--and the will--to get the job done.

"The Willamette is kind of the nation's Every River. Virtually every problem that's affecting rivers in the U.S. is present in the Willamette watershed," he said. "If Oregon is the environmental leader in the U.S., and the environmental leader in the world is the U.S., in a lot of ways, a lot of hope for what happens in the world is the Willamette. . . . In the end, there may be no other watershed that has more hope for it."

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times