EPA Hits Lower Willamette Group with
by Scott Learn
The Environmental Protection Agency has fined a key group of Portland Harbor property owners $125,500 for "unacceptable quality" in its assessment of health risks from harbor pollutants. The Lower Willamette Group represents 14 large property owners in the harbor, listed as a federal Superfund cleanup site in 2000, including the city of Portland, the Port of Portland, Northwest Natural Gas and 11 large Portland industries.
EPA said it could have fined the group more than $1 million, but reduced the fine because the group has made "good faith attempts" to address the agency's concerns.
But the penalty marks another sign of rocky relations as EPA gets closer to making a decision, perhaps by 2015, about how the heavily industrialized harbor should be cleaned up. In January, the EPA said it would rewrite sections of another key Lower Willamette Group report on harbor cleanup options after finding "many deficiencies."
The Lower Willamette Group first submitted its human health risk assessment in 2009, focusing on the risks of eating fish and shellfish from the river. Since then, EPA and the group have tussled over language, with EPA contending that the property owners, on the hook for a portion of harbor cleanup costs, were downplaying harbor risks.
Barbara Smith, spokeswoman for the Lower Willamette Group, said the penalty, issued last week, surprised members. When it first raised issues last June, EPA said it could waive fines if cooperation improved.
The Lower Willamette Group submitted an "acceptable" risk assessment in February, EPA said, and the EPA approved a final version early this month. To date, the group has spent roughly $100 million on report preparation and testing of polluted river sediment.
The group's members have not decided whether to appeal the penalty, but "we're extremely disappointed," Smith said. "It is really unreasonable that they would assess penalties against the very party they've been working cooperatively with for more than a decade.
"Not a dime of this will go toward river cleanup," she added.
Officials in EPA's Seattle office said they couldn't comment in detail because the enforcement case is ongoing. Spokesman Mark MacIntyre said the agency will meet with the Lower Willamette Group to discuss the penalty letter and "looks forward to resolving these issues within the next few weeks."
In December, Dan Opalski, director of EPA's office of water and watersheds in Seattle, largely rejected the Lower Willamette Group's initial appeal, which argued that EPA's concerns were relatively trivial.
Language in the group's original draft of the risk assessment tended to downplay risks, Opalski wrote, "a subject about which EPA has provided feedback at both the staff and management levels for several years."
The risk assessments are key to deciding how much cleanup is done. Cleanup costs could range from $200 million to $1.7 billion, depending how much expensive dredging is required.
River businesses, the Port of Portland and the city's sewer ratepayers would likely pay more if cleanup costs rise.
Much of Oregon's Congressional delegation has questioned EPA's risk analysis, including Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon.
"Senator Merkley understands that EPA has a job to do, but seriously questions whether fines -- over disagreements about a study that have already been resolved -- advance the goal of cleaning up the river," Merkley spokeswoman Courtney Warner Crowell said Tuesday.
Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper, said "penalties have their place."
After a decade with little cleanup, he said, "I think they (EPA) are showing folks they mean business."
The harbor's pollution comes from a century of industrial production, including World War II shipyards, electrical transformer shops that spilled toxic PCBs and chemical plants leaking the pesticide DDT.
The EPA has notified 144 "potentially responsible parties" that they might have to pay up. Under Superfund law that roster includes current property owners, even if they didn't release the pollution.
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