The Willamette River has been a source of livelihood for centuries in the Willamette Valley, but with the beginning of colonization in the 1800s, the landscape of the valley and the river began to change. “Hundreds of industries developed along the river’s banks, depositing heavy metals, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals into the water, soil and river sediment for over a century” (PHCC 2020). By the year 2000, areas of the Willamette river had become so polluted that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated an area of the lower Willamette River as a Superfund Site and it was added to the the EPA’s National Priorities List (Portland Harbor SuperFund Site EPA). The EPA’s Superfund Program was designed to clean up areas of extreme hazardous contamination in order to help the communities and environment in these areas (EPA superfund site). The Portland Superfund site is an 11-mile section of the Willamette River, that, even though it has been designated on the National Priorities List, continues to be a health hazard and economic harm for communities in the area.
Map of the 11-mile stretch along the Willamette River currently deemed a part of the Superfund Site clean-up project (City of Portland, 2020).
In 2012, the Portland Harbor Community Coalition (PHCC) was founded as a grassroots organization, with a mission to fight for the communities most impacted by the Portland Harbor Superfund Site (PHCC 2020). “PHCC’s mission is to elevate the voices of communities most impacted by pollution in the Portland Harbor Superfund site, including Native, Black/African American, immigrant and refugee, and houseless people of all backgrounds, and to ensure that impacted communities benefit from and lead the cleanup, restoration, and redevelopment of the harbor” (PHCC 2020). The coalition works to achieve its mission through various campaigns, outreach, and collaboration with many partner organizations.
The context of an adverse situation like that of the Portland Superfund Harbor Site (an area affecting so many parties, that has been through decades of pollution and degradation practices) requires an innate understanding of all sides. Understanding the relations in colonization, industrialization, and economic and racial injustice that the issues accrues, PHCC’s viability to represent various socio-economic values is pertinent. Given this context, PHCC strives to elevate the voices of people who have historically been marginalized. This includes working to ensure that the cleanup and remediation of the Superfund Site occurs in a timely and just fashion, supporting people who are houseless or who have been displaced from their homes along the river, and ensuring that there is broader access to the river for all. The Portland Harbor Superfund Site impacts many communities and touches on many areas of injustice. Given how multidimensional this issue is, it makes sense that PHCC works to create partnerships with a range of organizations in order to work towards their mission. Their core partners can be seen in the Actor Network Map below, as well as an introduction to some of the government agencies, laws, and goals that they work to influence and/or embody.
Actor Network Maps of the Portland Harbor Community Coalition and the organizations they work with
This source, hosted by the Oregon State Department of Environmental Quality, provides a short summary of the Portland Harbor Superfund Site, as well as somewhat up to date (through 2018) information on EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) rulings and proceedings regarding the Superfund Site’s clean-up. While the site summary is rather brief, it provides a very quick synopsis for those only looking for such, and provides many links and resources to more information. Links to proposed, and passed, clean-up plans, per the EPA, can be accessed here, as well as many toxicity fact sheets and reports, and source control summaries and updates. Lastly, there is a provided list of important contacts in each agency (DEQ, EPA, and ODHS); contacts that may be viable in finding out more information in the future.
In order to understand what PHCC is trying to protect communities and peoples from, it is important to fully understand the problem in which a need for such activism has arisen. PHCC works to push the EPA towards specific remediation decisions that include fighting the voices they represent, so understanding the timeline of the EPA’s decision is important. But more than that, it is important to understand the source of the problem, so as to prevent such clean-up actions from ever having to be taken.
The Portland Harbor Natural Resource Trustee Council is a great resource for a further understanding of the problems themselves of the Portland Harbor Superfund Site. It presents the information in the form of a timeline, map, and summary of ecological restoration projects. These processes of understanding where and what needs to be restored, as well as how to do that, are long and tedious, but the most important part in the clean-up processes currently underways. Additionally such assessments can provide more information on contamination and damage, helping to prevent future messes.
One of the PHCC’s methods of action involves trying to influence/motivate the EPA to take action based on assessments provided by groups such as the Portland Harbor Natural Resource Trustee Council. Restoration plans are not fully doing so, unless they are providing restoration for all affected parties. Understanding these plans and how PHCC is involved in this provides more information regarding historical, cultural, biological, and socio-cultural impacts.
“Our River,” Portland Harbor Community Coalition. Accessed February 20, 2020.
This is the website for the Portland Harbor Community Coalition. This is an essential resource for getting to know this organization and what they are working for. The website gives an overview of PHCC’s mission and goals. There is also a great overview of the history of the Willamette River and the Portland Harbor Superfund Site, and pages on the organization’s partner’s, press, stories, and priorities. It’s worth looking through all of these sources to get a better understanding of PHCC, their partners, what they have done so far, and what they are working towards. Additionally, it’s valuable to read the history of this organization and whose voices they are working to elevate, in order to gain a sense of how the Superfund Site has affected communities in Portland, OR.
Referred to as the the City’s Portland Harbor Program, the City of Portland has a sector of it’s Environmental Services Department focused directly on the mitigation and restoration efforts of the Portland Harbor Superfund Site. They are consistently providing up-to-date information on progress and milestones, as well as yearly reports, and even sharing insight regarding the process of remediation and restoration. Their resources consider over twenty parties directly involved in the collaboration that is this restoration and clean-up.
This page also has links to reports such as the “Natural Resource Damages, Mitigation Banking, and the Watershed Approach,” which provides an understanding of the financial risks, investments, and endeavors that various parties have to contribute (from the reported notability of the Environmental Law Institute and other organizations). In issues such as that of the Portland Harbor Superfund Site, not all damages and effects can so easily be measured in forms of economic values (although yes, many can be). Thus, understanding how various forms of value are able to be comparatively used on this single playing field of diverse issues and restoration processes is crucial.
“Portland Harbor Superfund Site,” United States Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed February 20, 2020.
This is the Environmental Protection Agency’s site for the Portland Harbor Superfund Site. This source gives a background of the Superfund Site, talks about what has been done to clean up the Site, and what the Site’s current status is. This gives insight into the EPA’s perspective on the Superfund Site, and how it is progressing. The EPA is a governmental organization that PHCC is pushing to take action in a just and equitable way. It’s important to read about what the EPA says they are doing, in order to more fully understand what PHCC is pushing for.
“Superfund | EPA,” United States Environmental Protection Agency, October 30, 2019.
This source is helpful for understanding what a Superfund site is, and what the history is surrounding the clean up of these sites. A Superfund, officially called the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), was established by Congress as a way for toxic areas to be cleaned up. Part of CERCLA forces companies that are responsible to do the clean up or pay for the cost of the EPA doing the clean up. It’s interesting to look at the goals listed on this website, because they overlap with some of PHCC’s goals, yet in the case of the Portland Harbor Superfund Site, these goals don’t seem to be being met in a timely manner. This page is also useful in understanding the government organization that PHCC is trying to influence.
Referred to as the the City’s Portland Harbor Program, the City of Portland has a sector of it’s Environmental Services Department focused directly on the mitigation and restoration efforts of the Portland Harbor Superfund Site. As explained above, they provide various resources regarding the diverse and complicated restoration process. One resource they provide is an up-to-date timeline of what they have have done (aka their involvement in the process) since 2001 (the year they officially joined the Lower Willamette Group (LWG), a group of private entities, the City of Portland, and the Port of Portland that worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the investigation of the contamination in Portland Harbor sediments. From investigating stormwater from city outfalls, to supporting natural resource restoration, this page gives more detail as to what the city itself has done and is doing about this problem, something we must understand in order to understand how PHCC can successfully communicate and engage with them.
“Willamette Cove Uplands,” Oregon State Department of Environmental Quality, 2019. Accessed February 20, 2020. https://go.usa.gov/xEJwh.
The Oregon State Department of Environmental Quality is in charge of actively monitoring parts of the Superfund Site remediation project. They have jurisdiction in overseeing source control with many contaminated areas, and overall upland oversight. Thus, their involvement in the project, and PHCC’s collaboration with their efforts, is crucial to getting remediation and mitigation projects in action; one that are positive for all parties (and in this case especially for those that PHCC represents). The Willamette Cove property comprises approximately 27 acres and approximately 3,000 feet of Willamette River shoreline. It is “located south of the St. Johns Bridge, adjoining or nearby neighborhoods include Cathedral Park, St. Johns, and University Park.” Many of these communities neary are under direct strain and influence from the contamination and pollution that has occurred here, making this clean-up project an imperative focus for the PHCC.
While a proposed clean-up plan is being proposed by the DEQ, extensive public outreach activities will be completed prior to selection of an upland cleanup plan. This will include representatives from the Portland Harbor Community Coalition will perform outreach to a wide range of community interests through a cooperative effort with Port of Portland, Metro, and DEQ.