Advocates Want the EPA to Force Portland to Clean Up a Key Stretch of the Willamette River

Audubon Society of Portland, Willamette Riverkeeper and other groups demand city and state get serious.

St. Johns Bridge. (Ruvim Miksanskiy)

Environmental and community groups have asked federal regulators to crack down on the city of Portland and the state of Oregon for allegedly dragging their feet on the cleanup of a prime piece of the city’s waterfront.

“We are writing to formally request that the EPA initiate formal enforcement action,” reads a Dec. 7 letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, signed by the Audubon Society of Portland, Willamette Riverkeeper, the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group, and the Portland Harbor Community Coalition.


The site in question is riverbed land adjacent to city-owned Cathedral Park, which sprawls across nearly 22 Willamette riverfront acres on either side of the St. Johns Bridge in North Portland.

It is part of the Superfund site in Portland Harbor—a swath of waterfront polluted by industrial chemicals.

Much of the property within the Superfund site is privately owned. Cathedral Park is one of the few places the public can access the Willamette within Portland Harbor.

The park includes a beach of sorts and a boat ramp.


The EPA named Portland Harbor a Superfund site in 2000, citing a century of industrial activity that left the river bottom and some adjacent uplands deeply contaminated. (The harbor comprises a nearly 10-mile stretch of the Willamette from Sauvie Island to the Broadway Bridge.)

The Superfund designation meant those responsible for the contamination (about 150 different entities) would have to clean it up. The glacially paced cleanup process reached a critical point in January 2017, when the EPA issued a 3,012-page record of decision and ordered those responsible for 17 different project areas within Portland Harbor to submit designs for cleaning up their messes.

The EPA gave the polluters, known as “potentially responsible parties,” two years to present designs.

Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland, says EPA got 13 responses; three zones are “orphaned” because the responsible parties are defunct.

There was only one area for which the responsible parties didn’t submit a proposed design: Cathedral Park.


Sallinger says his group and other interested parties met repeatedly with the city and state over the past two years to discuss what form the cleanup should take. But nothing happened.

“They’ve had two years since the deadline,” Sallinger says. “That’s long enough.”

Annie Von Burg, a manager at the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services, which oversees the city’s involvement in the Superfund process, says the city isn’t to blame. Portland is eager to move forward with the cleanup process, she insists, but wants to make sure industrial polluters that operated on either side of Cathedral Park share in the cost.

“Over the years, there have been many companies that have had operations at these two neighboring sites that are known to have contributed to this contamination,” Von Burg says. “We do not believe the public should have to pick up the whole tab for companies that should step up and meet their responsibilities.”

Von Burg adds that the EPA has made sure that the process continues to move forward so the delay in submitting a design for the Cathedral Park won’t impact the public.

State officials provide a similar explanation.

“The state has done more than almost any other party to address its responsibilities for remedial design at the Portland Harbor Superfund Site,” says Charles Boyle, a spokesman for Gov. Kate Brown. “No responsible party stepped forward to perform design work at the Cathedral Park cleanup area.”

Sallinger doesn’t buy those stances, calling them “completely unacceptable.”

“This is a public site,” Sallinger says. “The EPA process allows the city and the state to recover costs after the fact, if it’s determined somebody else is responsible.”


Audubon and other groups now want the feds to force the public entities to act. One option would be for EPA to bring an enforcement action against the public entities. That could result in protracted litigation.

Another option: EPA could do the Cathedral Park cleanup itself and then bill responsible parties. Sallinger says that’s not ideal, however, because EPA has no incentive to do more than the bare minimum, while public agencies could do what’s best for Portland in the long term. He prefers that the city and state simply submit a cleanup plan.

“This has already taken more than 20 years,” Sallinger says. “We want to see EPA step up and move things along.”

An EPA spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

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