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The EPA Is Stalling a $1 Billion Superfund Cleanup in Portland, Oregon

"We spent 17 years doing this and over $100 million to get to the place we are now."

SCIENCE AF STAFF
12 OCT 2017
 

Before 1995, Superfund cleanup efforts were paid for by taxes on crude oil, chemicals and companies that created the toxic waste sites. But those taxes haven't existed for decades, and now funding for cleanup programs is taxpayer limited.

 

That's why it was such a big deal when, two weeks before Trump was inaugurated, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a $1.05 billion cleanup plan for thousands of acres of contaminated soil and toxic materials along the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon.

The final plan was the culmination of 17 years of research and collaboration with over 100 businesses that are historically responsible for polluting the river.

Now it appears as though the EPA is stalling the final cleanup plan, which was set to be completed in 13 years, placing the long-term health of species and habitats along the river at risk.

Last week, the EPA started a confidential process to reopen and reanalyze the final cleanup plan, without consulting the state Department of Environmental Quality or the city of Portland.

"We spent 17 years doing this and over $100 million to get to the place we are now," Annie Von Burg, Portland's Superfund project manager, said in an interview.

"To start over now is simply unacceptable."

Mayor Ted Wheeler was also outraged, and sent a letter of objection to the EPA expressing worry that the new objectives "could steer the site off-course and even take implementation backward."

 

"And we are deeply troubled that…the current negotiation process…has not provided the opportunity for proper Federal, Tribal and State review," the letter adds.

Travis Williams, executive director of the Willamette Riverkeeper nonprofit, says that by keeping the process confidential, the agency can cherry pick locations on the river that are not as polluted to set a false baseline for how clean the river is currently.

"It could allow them to go back to square one," Williams said of the EPA's monitoring plan.

Williams also worries that the agency is being pushed into the revision process by companies that have been against the cleanup process for decades. But because the new plan is confidential, transparency in these matters is limited.

The manager of the DEQ cleanup projects, Kevin Parrett says he knows who is working with EPA on this matter but because it is confidential he says, "I cannot tell you what's in the document."

When asked who is the brains behind this new direction, Parrett replied, "it's being handled by [Washington] DC."

In Washington, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has vowed to clean up the Superfund sites, but achieving this will be difficult when President Trump's budget would slash funding for the program by nearly a third.

The city of Portland and the state of Oregon are still considering how to proceed, but they say the EPA's actions may violate a 2001 agreement with the state and local tribes.