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A toxic cocktail runs through it

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terrihansen | Apr 09, 2012 10:00 AM

The Portland Harbor Superfund Site feasibility study released last week by the Lower Willamette Group (LWG) proposes a range of clean-up options by the parties responsible for the contamination in the Willamette River and marks a major milestone in the Superfund process, the Yakama Nation says.

But it doesn’t go far enough.

The federally recognized sovereign Yakama Nation is calling for the LWG, as the Potentially Responsible Parties to do all necessary remediation to the Willamette River, and to pay for the clean up of the lower Columbia River as well.

“The Yakama Nation cannot turn its back on the harm Portland Harbor pollution has done -- and continues to do -- in the Columbia River,” says Virgil Lewis, chairman of the Yakama Nation’s Fish and Wildlife Committee and a tribal council member.

Lewis, whose family has fished both rivers for generations calls this a once in a lifetime opportunity to do the right thing. Failure to do violates the Yakama Nation’s treaty, and the civil rights of all people who rely upon the rivers for subsistence fishing and other uses, he said.

Portland Harbor siteWhen the Portland Harbor’s 11 miles of the lower Willamette River was designated a Superfund site in 2000, Yakama tribal leaders traveled to Washington D.C. to advocate for both rivers’ clean up. The Willamette streams into the Columbia River 100 miles above its mouth at the Pacific Ocean.

“Everything that is in the lower Willamette and sediment flows downhill into the Columbia, directly or through the Multnomah Channel,” says Rose Longoria, Yakama’s Regional Superfunds Project Coordinator.

The Yakama Nation, which has a 1.3-million-acre reservation in eastern Washington State, 11 million acres of ceded territory, and vast areas of usual and accustomed places has continually engaged in the Portland Harbor process to make sure that neither the Willamette or the Columbia rivers are short-changed, “in any way, shape, or form,” says Longoria.

Superfund law requires that Congress recognize tribes’ authority as natural resource trustees, and their right to oversee response actions that affect their interests.

monitoring wellAt the Portland Harbor site the Yakama serve a support role to the EPA, overseeing the remedial investigation and feasibility study to ensure the process leads to a technically sound cleanup that protects resources important for sustaining the cultural practices of tribal members. It is one of several Superfund sites the tribe is involved in.

The tribe has taken a firm stand on both the clean up and damages to natural resources. Their concerns that remediation would not extend to the injury and damages to the lower Columbia led to their withdrawal from the Portland Harbor Trustee Council in 2009. “We are still on the table with the federal, state, and tribal government team, but Yakama is on its own with the natural resource issue,” says Longoria.

The Columbia and Willamette rivers adjoin historic Yakama ceremonial sacred sites, ancestral burial sites, village ruins, petroglyphs, and religious and culturally significant sites. Yakama citizens have fished in the rivers, and hunted, gathered plants, roots, and berries for food and medicine near the rivers since time immemorial.

“There is nothing more important than honoring our ancestors by protecting the spiritual and cultural resource that has sustained our people for thousands of years, and restoring it for all people that will use this magnificent resource for generations to come,” says Lewis. “We must clean these rivers fully and completely.”

Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Reporter Terri Hansen writes about indigenous people and the environment. Her blog is Mother Earth Journal.

Images of Superfund site map and monitoring well construction courtesy U.S. EPA.

Travis Williams
Travis Williams
Apr 10, 2012 09:21 AM
Dear Readers - It will be essential to remove as much contaminated river sediment as possible from the river. As it is now, it would seem that those responsible for cleaning up the contaminated sediment are seeking to minimize the need to remove sediment (which happens to be more costly), and are seeking instead to heighten the benefits of capping. They also seek to increase the "threat" associated with dredging sediment from the river.

For most people it makes little sense to sweep your pollution under the rug so to speak, which in essence is what capping does in a river environment. In most cases it is only a matter of time until problems again emerge.

This is a significant opportunity to rid the Willamette of PCBs, DDE, PAH and heavy metals. With the other work occurring in the Willamette system, this can help bring this river back, and in doing so, protect a portion of the Columbia as well.

Travis Williams, Willamette Riverkeeper

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