the film

Cleanup Under Way

by Editorial Board
The Columbian, December 17, 2008

DOE, Alcoa making rapid progress in removing pollution from old smelter site

Here's a sentence we weren't sure would ever appear in The Columbian: Congratulations to the state Department of Ecology and Alcoa for rapid and extensive progress in cleaning up the old smelter site near the Port of Vancouver.

DOE and Alcoa were excoriated on this editorial page for more than a year. Contamination of the site just west of the port was known for more than a decade, yet no progress was seen. The Columbian's Erik Robinson wrote a series of hard-hitting stories last year, followed by an editorial demanding that Gov. Chris Gregoire intervene. She did, and three months ago the DOE and Alcoa agreed to pursue a cleanup plan.

We remained skeptical, and closed a Sept. 16 editorial with a curt, "We'll be getting back to you on this one. Local residents should respond: Hurrah! And we'll believe it when we see it."

Today, we're getting back to you, and the news is positive, in fact a "major milestone," according to DOE Director Jay Manning. As much as 90 percent of the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) polluting clam beds and the shoreline at the smelter site have been removed. As Robinson reported online Tuesday, two dredges have been working night and day for a couple of weeks. About 5,000 cubic yards of the most heavily polluted sediment have been removed and another 45,000 cubic yards of material that is lower in pollution amounts will also be removed.

So, kudos to the DOE and the company. Finally, this issue has progressed beyond editorial finger-pointing and has advanced to the celebratory stage. Fair is fair, and when both government and private-sector entities earn praise, we're willing to extend it.

The progress has occurred only after great effort and great expense. Alcoa has spent more than $10 million on the cleanup, and that's in addition to about $45 million spent elsewhere on the smelter site. As the DOE Web site ( reports: "All of the upland aluminum manufacturing and fabrication buildings have been removed. Demolition of the ore storage silos that remain along the Columbia River will occur in early 2009 unless the Port of Vancouver requests that the silos remain."

And that reference to the port takes us to our next point. This is more than just an environmental triumph. It's also a milestone in local economic development. The port wants to buy the site from Alcoa and use it for expanded operations, which means more jobs and more tax revenue. This will be occurring at a site that's not only adjacent to the port, but apparently is of little value to other developers. Thus the double victory: port expansion and improvement of property that has languished, unproductive, since operations permanently ceased in 2006. That kind of redevelopment at or near Vancouver's oldest areas and most central core is far superior to sprawl that consumes previously undeveloped areas on the community's perimeter. (This is the same concept that, to a greater extent, could be unfolding at the old Boise Cascade site upstream from the Alcoa property).

Even after all the foot-dragging (oops, didn't we say we wouldn't dredge up that old complaint?), the current cleanup is proceeding at relatively breakneck speed, in fact a year ahead of the normal two-year process for dredging in the river. Dredging is projected to be completed in the middle of January, and the shoreline cleanup must be completed by Feb. 28 to avoid harm to migrating salmon. (On that issue, state officials say downstream measurements have the project well within turbidity standards).

Cleaned up clam beds and shoreline, and a bigger and better port. Clark County residents have reason now to say: Thank you, DOE and Alcoa.

Editorial Board
Cleanup Under Way
The Columbian, December 17, 2008

See what you can learn

learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs
discussion forum
salmon animation