By NECN Staff


The City of Portland and an array of environmental agencies are engaged in a critical phase of the Superfund clean-up for Portland Harbor, in North Portland.
Years of testing and site analysis are at last bearing fruit, as wide-scale cleanup plans are taking shape – in fact, some have already started – but it’s time for Portlanders to get involved and make sure the plans are carried out in a way that works for local residents.
One thing is crucial about the current moment for the Portland Harbor cleanup: right now is the time for community members to step up and participate! 

What is a Superfund site and how did this one get here?

Superfund is shorthand for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). It is the law that authorizes EPA to clean up contaminated land and waterways. In the case of Portland Harbor, the contamination is historical. It is the result of over a century’s worth of shipping, industrial, and commercial activity before environmental regulations were in place. 

Following years of investigation, EPA determined that Portland Harbor was a Superfund site in 2000.

What’s going on right now?

We are in the “remedy design phase.” This process includes nailing down critical details to make sure the cleanup will be effective and can be completed with minimal impacts on neighbors, nearby businesses, and the environment. Public agencies and private parties are working to determine how they will implement the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s cleanup plan.  It’s a vital step to getting us to the goal of a healthy river, and it’s a step where community input really matters.

For example, the City of Portland is working with the Oregon Department of State Lands and the Port of Portland to design the in-river cleanup at Willamette Cove. Community members have played a critical role by sharing what they want to see and how they want to use that area. They have shared their desires for habitat, recreation, and cultural practices. Just like regulatory requirements, technical limitations, cost, and other factors in the cleanup design, engineers are considering community perspectives. While there is no guarantee that parties will be able to meet all community requests, experts are exploring what is feasible and practicable. 

Community voices are also critical to shaping how the cleanup is implemented, for example, things like the transportation of material related to the cleanup. There is a lot of planning and coordination in moving large amounts of materials around, and Portlanders’ voices in that process are critical.

The City is just one of many parties involved in the Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup. There are more than 150 parties that are potentially responsible for the historical contamination of the riverbed. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees the entire cleanup process and makes sure that all actions taken by parties working on the cleanup align with EPA requirements. Six tribes and natural resource agencies provide expert technical consultation to the EPA, while community members are also advising and providing feedback.

Who are the local community groups and organizations that are working to bring more local residents to the table for this part of the Superfund process? What do they do and how can people connect with them?

Several community groups and organizations are working to elevate the voices of communities disproportionately affected by the contamination and the cleanup process. Their efforts are critical in ensuring an equitable cleanup. The Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group, Portland Harbor Community Coalition, Willamette River Advocacy Group, Willamette Riverkeeper, and Braided River Campaign have long been in this space doing important work.

Multnomah County Health Department’s fish advisory education and outreach program is resulting in even more community groups getting involved to spread the word about what fish is safer to eat. And the City’s Portland Harbor community grants program has also helped grow the number of BIPOC-led community organizations working to engage and educate youth about the contamination and cleanup.

For folks interested in learning how to get involved, I recommend connecting with the Portland Harbor Collaborative. It can be a good place to meet many of these community members in one place and learn more about their work. They meet every three months and provide a Portland Harbor 101 for people who are new to the space.  

After years of industrial pollution, is it really possible to clean up a place like this?

It’s not impossible, and it is absolutely worth the effort for far too many reasons to name. Here are  just a few:

  • The contamination in Portland Harbor has significantly limited the ability of many Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities to practice traditions considered essential to cultural identity, including ceremonies, celebrations, harvesting, and safely feeding one’s family with resident fish from the river. Cleaning up the river will ultimately lead to fishers and their families being able to eat more of these fish with less risk to their health.
  • The Willamette River is a significant cultural resource for tribal members. All salmon in the Willamette River must travel through the Portland Harbor as part of their migration. Addressing the contamination is the first step to creating a protective environment for humans and wildlife. 
  • We are stewards of this natural resource, and we must address contamination so that it does not risk human health or the environment. Portlanders love the Willamette River and want to feel safe while enjoying and recreating on it. 

What is the timeline for important public meetings and processes on the Willamette Harbor Superfund Cleanup Design Phase?

The Portland Harbor Collaborative meetings take place quarterly. All are welcome! Next meeting is in June. Contact for more information. 

What is the most important thing about this issue for local residents to know?

Portlanders’ tireless activism and engagement have been critical to moving the Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup forward and the City’s increasing investment in supporting community involvement in the process. We are thankful for the leadership and commitment of those who have been involved for many years and the energy and involvement of those who are newer to Portland Harbor space. We are excited to continue working with all Portlanders, particularly those disproportionately affected by the contamination, to achieve a healthier river. 

Photo credit:  —>By Bob Heims, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Digital Visual Library #Sce0373, Public Domain

Willamette River Superfund: Get Involved