EPA ‘remains committed’ to working with DEQ, tribes on Portland Superfund cleanup

The Environmental Protection Agency said it “remains committed to working with all parties” involved in the $1.05 billion plan to cleanup the Portland Harbor Superfund site.

The EPA’s acting administrator in the Pacific Northwest, Michelle Pirzadeh, expressed the federal agency’s support for the state, tribes and other partners in a letter Thursday to Oregon environmental regulators.

The letter to Richard Whitman, the director of Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, marked the EPA’s first formal communication on the issue since the state, city of Portland and tribal partners expressed concern this week that the federal agency was working in private with a hand-picked group of organizations on the cleanup plans for the 10-mile stretch of the river, from roughly the Broadway Bridge to Kelley Point Park.

City leaders and state officials said the EPA’s draft plan as written could open the door to selective river sampling, which could provide an inaccurate baseline level of contamination, a move they contend was designed to delay the project and benefit a select handful of polluters.

The Environmental Protection Agency is attempting to either delay, or unravel, the long-sought plan to clean up a contaminated 10-mile stretch of the Willamette River in Portland, according to state and local officials and environmental advocates.

But Pirzadeh said Thursday the EPA has not made a final decision on how to proceed with the cleanup and additional testing of the contaminated site. The letter stated that the tribes, DEQ and other long-term federal partners on the project will have until Oct. 24 to respond to the draft plan delivered to those groups on Oct. 6.

“I believe we do have a mutual goal of moving the process forward expeditiously to allow work in the river to commence as soon as possible,” she said in the letter.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, who sits on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said in an interview Thursday that it’s time to move forward with the cleanup plan.

“We’ve spent an incredible amount of money working out a plan,” he said, “and at some point, you have to actually execute the plan and I think now is the time to execute the plan and get it done.”

If the EPA delays cleanup, he warned, it “may not be done in our lifetimes.”

The Portland Harbor Superfund drama comes as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has vowed to speed up cleanups nationwide, pledging to create a top 10 list of projects and streamline the process.

In January, while still under the Obama administration, the EPA released the long-awaited final cleanup plan for the Superfund site, the culmination of a 17-year effort.

The 2,535-page Record of Decision document described the 13-year cleanup timetable and outlined a variety of treatment plans, including dredging 248 acres of the river bottom and capping another 89.6 acres of toxic land in the water. Another 1,774 acres were expected to recover naturally.

On Tuesday, the EPA convened a conference call with the state, tribe and federal partners to try and allay concerns about the latest developments.

The EPA has insisted its draft work plan and the list of parties it is collaborating with are confidential. Tribal groups and the state have cited confidentiality when asked to disclose the records.

In response to the statement Thursday, the DEQ released an official comment saying it appreciated EPA’s responsiveness and expected the agency to work with the state on a “constructive, collaborative relationship.”

Earlier in the week, the feelings weren’t as definitive.

Kevin Perrett, DEQ’s superfund manager, said the conference call was a time for all the groups to express concerns directly to the federal government

He said the EPA agreed to allow for two weeks of review before finalizing the work plan at the DEQ’s request.

But neither the state nor tribes were celebrating.

“It’s not a victory,” Perrett said Wednesday. “It’s a battle, perhaps that we won, but we haven’t won the war.”

He said the larger question is whether the EPA will work with the state and tribes “in a meaningful way.”

Rose Longoria, the Yakama Nation’s Superfund manager, said the EPA caused alarm bells to ring when it appeared close to a work plan that didn’t include tribal input.

She said a lot of the new uncertainty is being driven by EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C. “Additional time to review documents is great,” she said, “but we need to make sure that our comments are going to be addressed.”

Tribes are concerned about the Superfund site because the Willamette River is the largest industrial tributary of the Columbia River and its contamination levels have an effect on lamprey and salmon health.

It’s still unclear which industrial partners or other responsible parties identified in the area were working with the EPA behind closed doors. The Oregonian/OregonLive asked the 14 members of the Lower Willamette Group, a group of public and private entities that have long worked on the project, if they were working with the EPA.

Of those that responded, EVRAZ, Chevron, Burlington Northern Sante Fe, Siltronic and Phillips 66 declined to answer any questions.

Kinder Morgan, NW Natural, the Port of Portland, Union Pacific and the city of Portland said they were not currently involved with EPA.

Pirzadeh’s predecessor said it was “disturbing” that the EPA would show any interest in moving forward without the state or Portland’s participation.

Dennis McLerran, former region administrator under the Obama administration, said that was “unprecedented” and seemed designed to delay cleanup altogether.

McLerran said everyone involved in the nearly two-decade process knew there would be additional river sampling after the cleanup plan was finalized in January. “That needs to be done in a transparent fashion,” he said.

Pirzadeh’s letter stated the agency “deeply values” its partners and is committed to moving toward cleaning up the river to benefit both people and the environment.