The Record of Decision was Released, January 6, 2017. After 16 years of hard work, wr and the Community advance river health, and community health. 

The REcord of Decision Reflects significant improvements over the Draft Cleanup Plan!

On January 6th, the EPA released the Record of Decision as the Superfund process reached a true milestone. The Record of Decision, or Final Cleanup Plan, will result in reduced exposure to contamination to a variety of toxic pollutants in the Willamette River's sediment. PCBs, PAH, DDE, Dioxin, and many other pollutants will be removed from the river or have clean material placed over the pollutants. 

While the Record of Decision was not as comprehensive as WR and its community partners called for, it will permanently remove massive amounts of polluted river sediment from the Willamette. Over 3 million cubic yards of sediment will be dredged. In addition, large areas of the river bottom will be capped, separating people and wildlife from coming into contact with the pollution. 

The overall cleanup will result in reduced cancer risk for people, and reduced ecological impacts for fish, birds, and mammals. 

 - As we look ahead, continued public input and participation will be essential. WR has advocated for a multi-stakeholder group representing the general public to be formed. This would enable people to keep track of how the cleanup is progressing, and identify ways to provide additional input. The cleanup will take over a decade, and having a clear view of how individual sites are addressed along the ten mile stretch of river will help ensure that the implementation of this decision reflects what the Record of Decision calls for, and represents the long-terms interests of the river. 

WR has advocated for a transparent process with the US EPA, Oregon DEQ, the City of Portland and others who hold legal responsibility for implementing the cleanup.

Key Actions to Come - 

a) In the coming months the US EPA and DEQ will develop a rigorous Sampling Plan that will give us an up to date baseline of contamination, and a format for continued monitoring over time to track progress. 

b) Potential "Early Cleanup Actions." There are a few sites that could be ready for a cleanup where the PRPs have expressed interest. 


Thank you! It is because of YOU that the Draft Plan was improved. Over 5300 individual people and organizations provided comment on the Draft Plan. This outpouring of interest made a big difference to the US EPA. Your voice was heard and the agency made significant changes to the plan. Thank you for your effort in this process. After 16 years working on this issue, Willamette Riverkeeper will keep on fighting this fight until the cleanup is finished!



Q: Why does pollution in the river matter?

A: Pollutants such as PCBs, DDT, and oil-based contaminants were released into the Willamette River for decades, and collected in the river bottom across a 10 mile stretch of river. The pollutants are also found in riverside lands. These and other pollutants can increase the risk of cancer for people who eat resident fish on a regular basis. The pollutants can also have negative impacts on a range of wildlife, from fish and baby river otters, to shorebirds and Osprey. Much of it is very toxic, and needs to be removed from the river!

Those who have liability for the pollution in our river are required to clean it up under the federal Superfund law, or they must pay to clean it up. There are over 100 different entities who hold liability in relation to Portland Harbor.

The Portland Harbor Superfund site is a highly contaminated stretch of the Willamette River that extends approximately 10 miles, near the confluence with the Columbia River to the Fremont Bridge. In 2000 this area was designated a Federal Superfund Site under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). This means the federal government has recognized this portion of the Willamette among the most polluted sites in the nation. Clean and healthy rivers are part of the Public Trust that holds that our rivers are held “in common, and belong to all.” Our river should be clean and healthy, to benefit all of us.

Check out this interactive map to learn more about the area:

Those who hold liability for the cleanup are legally called Potentially Responsible Parties (PRP).                                                                      

The Cleanup Timeline to Date:

  • Pollution characterized in the 1990s by the State of Oregon.
  • Site listed as a Superfund site in December of 2000.
  • Remedial Investigation: Identified the extent and type of contamination. (Completed.) 
  • Feasibility Study: Proposed Cleanup options, and evaluation of options. (Released by PRPs in March 2012 but finalized by the EPA in 2016.)
  • Proposed Draft Cleanup Plan: (Released by the US EPA June 8, 2016) Outlines the specific approach to the cleanup. Official public comment period opens, enabling the EPA to receive feedback from the general public. (June 8 through August 8) 
  • Record of Decision: The final plan that directs the Cleanup process. ( Early 2017.)
  • Cleanup Actions and restoration. (2017 and beyond.) 


The Pollution                                                                       

There are a variety of pollutants in Portland Harbor, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), metals (cadmium, lead, zinc), dioxins, furans, polycyclicaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), arsenic, DDT and mercury. Some of these are also found in riverside “upland” areas. 

Many of these pollutants are byproducts of past industrial activities. An example of this are PCBs, used decades ago, which now comprise one of the most widespread pollutants found in the river. Once released into the environment, many pollutants like PCBs take decades to breakdown and remain in the river with the potential to harm the health of fish, wildlife and people. These pollutants may react together in the environment to create even more toxic compounds.

Here are the top three ways these contaminants can harm the people and wildlife in our community:

  • Consumption of resident fish and shellfish taken from the Portland Harbor.
  • Infant consumption of breast milk from mothers who are exposed to contaminants.
  • Bioaccumulation: Contaminated sediment is eaten by plankton, which are eaten by bottom-feeders, which are eaten by fish, which are eaten by humans, birds and mammals thus harming all life forms along this line.                                                                                                            


Who is responsible for the Cleanup?                                                                       

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for overseeing the Superfund process on behalf of the public and is taking the lead with the in-water portion of the Cleanup. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality is taking the lead on uplands next to the river to ensure more contamination does not make its way to the river. The EPA oversees DEQ’s work.                                                                       

Over 100 companies along the river have some responsibility for the pollution. The City of Portland and the Port of Portland also share some liability. Based on the Polluter Pays Principle, these Potentially Responsible Parties (PRP) that either directly caused the pollution or purchased contaminated property, are responsible for the cost and cleanup the pollution. The federal government expects purchasers of industrial lands to do their due diligence before acquiring property and the costs of cleanup are factored into the decision to purchase the property. In 2000 a subset of the PRPs called the Lower Willamette Group signed an agreement with the US EPA to lead the research of the contaminants, then formulate cleanup options in a document called the Feasibility Study (FS). Today the US EPA is taking leadership for finishing the FS and creating the draft Cleanup Plan expected in 2016.


There are several options for cleaning up our river. These options were included at various levels in the record of decision

  • Removal of Sediment from the river environment and placing it in a landfill.
  • Capping leaves pollutants in place and actively covers them with clean material (often including layers of clay, rock, and sand). This method includes many years of monitoring, and may provide less certainty in relation to human, fish and wildlife health.
  • Alternative Treatments can include biochar, carbon enhancements and other emerging approaches that treat sediment both in the river, and once it is removed. These are still in their experimental stages and are unlikely to be the primary strategy.
  • Natural Recovery simply leaves pollutants in place and relies on the river’s natural sediments to cover up the pollution over time. This is the least protective for the river.

None of the Cleanup options are perfect. Given that there are miles of contaminated sediment, the impact of the decision of whether to remove sediments, cap them, or leave them untreated, is significant. The final solution must adequately protect people and wildlife.                                                                       


WR's Superfund History

Willamette Riverkeeper has been involved in this process since in the mid 1990s, highlighting the need for an official cleanup process. When the site was finally listed as a federal Superfund site in December of 2000, WR had been fully engaged in this issue, and providing information to the community. In 2000 WR and the US EPA formed the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group, which had a broad representation of local people who were concerned about the issue. 

In the first couple of years, WR gained useful data to uphold the need for this cleanups, from fishing surveys, to pushing for public signage to warn about the contaminants that could be present in some fish. WR also worked closely with the US EPA and Oregon DEQ as they engaged the PRPs in the process. For over 16 years WR has been the lead advocate and community educator on this issue. 

Here is an example of one of our projects in 2001/02 which is a survey of those fishing along the river. We thought it was critical to capture a random sampling of people along the river. We spoke with over 120 people from 10 to 30 minutes and gained a lot of useful data - clearly indicating the nexus between people and the river. . 

Angler Survey in 2001-02