Yakama Nation Leaves
by Scott Learn
A high-stakes assessment of harm to fish and wildlife from Portland Harbor pollution will not focus on downstream damage in the salmon-rich Columbia River, prompting the Yakama Nation to withdraw from the council overseeing the work.
The industrial harbor, Oregon's largest Superfund cleanup site, sits on the Willamette River just north of downtown Portland and 3 to 9 miles from the Columbia.
But the trustee council charged with determining natural resource damage from the harbor pollution says it wants to study only the Willamette "at this time."
Yakama officials, whose reservation and ceded lands include Mount Adams, the Yakima and Klickitat rivers and portions of the Columbia, are pledging to conduct their own studies along the 100 miles of the Columbia after its confluence with the Willamette.
It's the first public rift on the Portland Harbor Natural Resource Trustee Council, which includes the state of Oregon, NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and five other tribal governments. And it could mean big costs to harbor polluters and land owners if the Yakama can document downstream damages.
Studies indicate young salmon in the lower Columbia carry significantly higher loads of harmful industrial toxics than the fish upstream, said Ralph Sampson Jr., chairman of the Yakama Nation's tribal council.
"We have stuck a considerable amount of work into (the council), and this was a hard decision to make," Sampson said. But the Yakama "cannot turn its back on the potential harm Portland Harbor pollution has done on the Columbia River, particularly to the juvenile salmon migrating to the sea."
Erin Madden, the trustee council's chairwoman and an attorney representing the Nez Perce Tribe, said the rest of the council felt it was "prudent to focus our assessment activities on the Willamette River at this time."
There are no known natural resource damage claims in the Columbia, she said, adding that the council will determine whether to assess the Columbia "based on the scientific results of our Willamette River assessment." The council hopes to finish the assessment by 2012.
Madden and other council members declined to say how Willamette studies could reveal clues to damage in the Columbia.
Industries and land owners in the harbor, including the city of Portland and the Port of Portland, are already on the hook to pay for cleanup costs, including dredging polluted river sediment and cleaning contaminated land.
Lesser known: They're also liable for natural resource damages in the past and future from pollution remaining after the cleanup.
The harbor was declared a federal Superfund cleanup site in 2000. Its pollution sources include shipbuilding operations, oil storage and utility facilities, chemical manufacturers and stormwater runoff.
Toxic harbor pollution includes PCBs -- a once widely used industrial insulator -- polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, heavy metals and other substances known to damage birds and fish.
Studies of juvenile salmon in the Columbia show relatively low concentrations of industrial toxins from Troutdale to the Bonneville Dam, upstream of the Willamette's entry point, said Lyndal Johnson, who leads NOAA Fisheries' ecological assessment group in Seattle.
The concentrations climb as the fish reach the Columbia's urban stretch, she said, reaching levels that harm vulnerable juvenile fish. But it's unclear how much of the pollution is from the Willamette and how much is from other urban areas, including Vancouver.
In recent meetings, the trustee council majority argued that the group could make a better case for natural resource damage in the harbor itself, said Rose Longoria, the Yakama Nation's Portland Harbor Superfund analyst.
Madden, the council chairwoman, said the council wants to work with polluters and landowners to "cooperatively resolve their natural resource liabilities."
The council's verdict on restoration needed could draw lawsuits from polluters, further delaying the slow-paced Superfund work.
But the Yakama, whose fishing rights on the Columbia are set in an 1855 treaty with the federal government, plan to "cast the net as broadly as possible," Longoria said, studying contaminants in the Columbia's water and sediment.
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