by Mischa Webley, NECN Staff Writer

The same year that the Environmental Protection Agency designated an 11-mile section of the Willamette River a toxic Superfund site, Donovan Smith was a grade schooler in Northeast Portland. He didn’t know much about the river other than the basic rule that most young Portlanders heed: don’t swim in it. It was only some years later after he chanced into an encounter with the Portland Harbor Community Coalition (PHCC) that something clicked, and he began to see the river in a new light.

What’s known today as the Portland Harbor stretches north along both sides of the Willamette, from the Broadway Bridge on up to to Sauvie Island. It is the past and present home to a wide range of industries, many of which helped give birth to the city in the early 20th century.

Those industries, however, haven’t always been friendly to the river, and in 2000 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared it a priority Superfund site, the designation for extremely polluted areas. Nineteen years later, with cleanup planning accelerating but yet to begin, the federal government’s definition of “priority” is, clearly, fluid.  

(L-R) Donovan Smith, Alejandra Ruiz, Hayley Cron, Ibrahim Mubarak, Cassie Cohen

The thing that clicked that day for Donovan, now the Media and Outreach Coordinator for PHCC, is the same thing that drives his colleagues there to show up every day and fight for the future of Portland’s central river. It’s the recognition that caring for the well-being of the Willamette is not just about being an environmentalist.

Rather, it’s a matter of seeing the environment itself as the chessboard that the hot-button issues which define our society such as race, class, homelessness and gentrification, play out on.

After all, the majority of benefits generated by that industry went only to a certain few, while the impacts of its pollution have been felt most acutely by those whose voices are often marginalized, and whose communities tend to lie closest to polluted areas. The elevation of these impacted communities in that conversation is central to PHCC’s mission.

As Hayley Cron, an intern with PHCC, puts it, “We don’t talk enough about the relationship between social justice and environmental justice.” Adds Alejandra Ruiz, an organizer, “It’s bigger than Portland. It’s a global issue now with climate change.”

The rubber hits the road when PHCC leader & Right2 Survive Executive Director Ibrahim Mubarak, walks the riverbanks to meet with the many hidden houseless communities that use the river as a lifeline. “They have gardens, they’re growing vegetables in the [riverside] sediment, but the soil is toxic,” he says, and adds that people commonly fish and bathe in the river as well. Part of PHCC’s mission is to shed light on the needs of this community, among others, and to fight for those needs to be met as the cleanup progresses and plans for its future are made.

Looking east at the Broadway Bridge. Photo by Mischa Webley

Their work isn’t easy. On any given day, the PHCC crew might be rallying people to a public forum on the cleanup; hammering out a community benefits agreement with the City of Portland; or hosting a feedback session with representatives from the EPA. “It’s tiring work,” says Cassie Cohen, Coalition Coordinator and a founding member of PHCC, who lists keeping up the morale of their coalition partners as one of their biggest challenges. “People get exhausted by it because it’s so political.

It can be discouraging for some folks who have a lack of trust historically for government agencies.” There are a lot of setbacks, she says, and progress is slow. Yet in spite of that, they have developed a steady track record of some wins on enhancing EPA’s cleanup plan and convincing the City to address the burdens of impacted communities while acknowledging the communities’ expertise. 

Looking north upriver from the Albina area, it takes some imagination to think of a future waterfront that doesn’t include abandoned factories, aging docks and the rattle of freight trains nearby. Although new development is still a long way off, many eager planners and investors are already lining up with their vision of what’s possible there.

As these plans come together, PHCC knows it will be an uphill battle to ensure that things like open greenspace, affordability, river access, and job training are a part of that development package. But the goal underlying all their work is for something more profound than a clean waterway, and less wonky than workforce development programs. “It’s really about rethinking our relationship with the river,” Donovan says. “There’s a whole generation who still has that unhealthy relationship with it.”

The Willamette is at an inflection point, as is the city itself, and for PHCC this moment is an opportunity for Portlanders to renew that sense of possibility and responsibility around its boundary-defining river.

It’s a chance to challenge the narrative that this waterway is only a tool of commerce and instead reimagine it as a place that welcomes all and provides opportunities that are distributed fairly. Cleaning the harbor is only the first step. The future of the river will be shaped by how big we dare to dream.