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The Portland Harbor Superfund Site on Oregon’s Willamette River

Beautiful Portland, Oregon, sits about 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean at the confluence of the mighty Willamette and Columbia Rivers. The final 17 miles of the Willamette flow through downtown Portland, past its skyscrapers, harbor, airport and industrial sites.

The Lower Willamette has been endlessly used and abused by humans. By the 1930s, the concentration of industrial and municipal waste in this stretch of the river made it uninhabitable for fish. Efforts were made over the years to clean up the river, but dangerous pollution continues to be a byproduct of heavy industrialization into modern times.

Prevalent pollutants in the river and on adjoining land include DDT, creosote, sewage, PCBs, petroleum, industrial solvents and more. Some of these are still being dangerously generated by a variety of industries.

In 2000, the federal Environmental Protection Agency named Portland Harbor to its list of national Superfund sites, the most polluted sites in the country with the highest cleanup priority. At that time, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality had already identified and started cleanup of forty sites on the river’s banks in this area. The Oregon DEQ, EPA, six tribal governments and other public agencies are working together on this monumental project.

Today the Superfund site spans about 10 urban miles of the Willamette through Portland, from Sauvie Island to the Broadway Bridge. It could take decades to bring this area back to relative health.

Pursuant to the Superfund law the EPA may make mandatory requests for information from individuals and businesses that may have information about or have contributed to the contamination of the site. This information helps with planning and executing cleanup as well as identifying private parties that may have potential legal liability.

In 2008, the EPA sent out almost 300 letters to “potentially responsible parties” – also called PRPs – current and past property and business owners, operators and tenants along the river, or upland if pollution may have traveled.

Portland Harbor is dotted with state-designated urban renewal areas for which government money may be available for cleanup and redevelopment. Despite the overwhelming magnitude of the environmental problem, a long-term plan is being developed – based on intensive study and investigation – for tackling it, and business opportunities for investors and developers are beginning to become available and should pick up as the economy improves.

For example, the University of Portland is redeveloping a stretch for athletic facilities, science laboratories and natural habitat. The Portland Development Commission has been instrumental in promoting and facilitating such ventures.

If you are considering commercial opportunities in Portland Harbor it is in your interest to consult with an experienced environmental law attorney with understanding of the complex legal confluence of federal, state and local laws that control in the harbor. If you already own real estate, or have historical or current business interests within the Superfund area, you may be a PRP and should talk to a lawyer to protect your rights and understand your responsibilities.

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