Muddy Waters

Rep. Earl Blumenauer wants to cut Willamette Superfund costs. His wife works for a company paying the bills.

For more than a decade, the federal government has been demanding that companies along the Willamette River clean up their mess in the Portland Harbor.

And no one has been more adamant about getting the feds to speed up the process than U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.).

He's advocating steps that could not only bring the Superfund cleanup to an earlier end, but save the polluting companies millions.

"I've been on this notion of doing it in a cost-effective fashion for years," Blumenauer says. "We can't spend a quarter-billion and not start cleaning something up."

But Blumenauer rarely—if ever—publicly acknowledges the conflict of interest he has on the Portland Harbor debate: His wife, Margaret D. Kirkpatrick, is senior vice president and general counsel for NW Natural. The utility last year awarded her $769,080 in total compensation—including salary, bonuses and other benefits—and her NW Natural stock holdings are valued at $347,000.

NW Natural owns two polluted industrial properties along the Willamette River where it buried tar left over from gas plants that stopped operating in 1956. The company's most recent filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission shows its liability for the Superfund cleanup is at least $43 million.

NW Natural, its ratepayers and shareholders—including Kirkpatrick—would benefit from a faster, cheaper cleanup.

Blumenauer says his wife's financial stake in NW Natural has not affected his position.

"This is something that benefits everybody," Blumenauer says. "People can say what they want. I'm not going to apologize for making sure it's done in a cost-effective fashion. What I do on this river has no effect on Margaret's job."

Some observers say Blumenauer's conflict is serious.

"It looks like he's carrying water for special interests benefiting his wife," says Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, a right-leaning ethics watchdog organization based near Washington, D.C. "That ought to be used as a club to beat him over the head."

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for left-wing watchdog Public Citizen, agrees: "He cannot be expected to recuse himself from the issue, but he should make every effort to disclose the conflict."

For decades, the riverbed of the Portland Harbor—a nearly 11-mile stretch of the Willamette bordered by heavy industry—has been polluted with chemicals that include arsenic and mercury. These toxins harm wildlife and can make local fish poisonous to eat.

In 2000, the federal government named the Portland Harbor a Superfund site, mandating that the sediments at the bottom of the river be cleaned out.

NW Natural has already spent $27 million studying and cleaning up pollution leaked into the river from ponds where it once buried tar—including $6 million to remove a 15,000-cubic-yard tar ball from the riverbed.

NW Natural is among the biggest of 100 Portland Harbor companies that have a huge amount of money at stake. Depending on what level of cleanup the EPA selects, the costs of the full harbor cleanup could range from $169 million to $1.7 billion.

Blumenauer has pushed for faster action and for shifting costs away from the companies liable for cleanup. He's also sought to renew an oil and gas tax to pay for Superfund cleanups.

In 2009, Blumenauer gave a speech on the House floor in which he lauded NW Natural as a company that had "stepped forward" to clean up the Portland Harbor. He did not mention any other company nor did he tell colleagues his wife was one of the utility's top executives.

Blumenauer has also pressed the Pentagon to pick up more of the costs in the harbor cleanup.

"The Department of Defense is the largest generator of Superfund sites," Blumenauer told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during a June budget hearing. "I'm dealing with one in the Willamette River…a staging area for the Navy for three wars, and there's serious pollution that is in part the responsibility of the federal government."

Blumenauer and other members of the Oregon delegation pressured the incoming EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, to shift oversight of the project to the nation's capital.

Most Superfund sites are overseen by regional EPA offices, but Blumenauer sought the change after local EPA officials fined several Portland Harbor companies (including NW Natural) $125,500 in April for dragging their feet in studies of the river's pollution.

"Some of this doesn't look great," says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "He should be disclosing his wife's financial interest in NW Natural when pushing for a settlement that involves NW Natural paying less money. But I don't think he's violated any ethics rules."

The U.S. House ethics rules allow members to vote on matters where they have disclosed a financial interest, but prohibit their spouses from lobbying them. (Blumenauer lists Kirkpatrick's job in his annual congressional financial disclosure form.)

NW Natural spokeswoman Kim Heiting says Kirkpatrick carefully adheres to ethics rules.

"Margaret is of the highest integrity," Heiting says. "She simply does not talk to the congressman about this project."

Blumenauer says Kirkpatrick has never lobbied his office on Superfund costs. He says he is trying to make sure the costs of Superfund cleanups are spread equally.

“I’m sorry, I think that’s what I’m supposed to do,” he tells WW. “And if I didn’t do that, then you should go ballistic and roast me.”