Superfund dispute rages as cleanup moves into the next phase

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Swan Island, part of the Portland Harbor

The subject of debate is a site managed by utility NW Natural. 

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As the Portland Superfund cleanup enters a new phase to determine who pays for what, the process has become mired in a key dispute over a site managed by utility provider NW Natural.

A coalition of companies that own property downriver, including BP, ExxonMobil and Astoria-based shipbuilder Brix Maritime, accuse NW Natural of continuing to leak pollutants into the river. The source of the contamination, they say, stems from a site owned by the utility’s predecessor the Portland Gas & Coke Company (Gasco). 

NW Natural, however, says the companies used misleading information to paint an inaccurate picture of the contamination. Director of NW Natural’s legacy environmental cleanup program, Bob Wyatt, and spokesman Tom Imeson, say the oil companies mischaracterized a problem of minor groundwater pollution as one involving more dangerous dense non-aqueous phase liquids (oil, tar and petroleum products).

The companies, which call themselves the River Mile 4 to 7 Group, argue that re-contamination risks surrounding the Gasco site could delay the entire Superfund cleanup.

“They say it’s all legacy pollution but it’s continuing,” says Paul Vogel, a spokesman for the group. “Before you can stop the water you have to turn off the tap.”

Wyatt says Vogel mislabeled a video showing oily tar balls oozing into an underground well as evidence of contamination at the Gasco site. The well, Wyatt says, is actually owned by the neighboring Siltronic Corporation. Vogel says the distinction makes no difference, as contamination began under NW Natural’s ownership, before the property was sold to Siltronic. 

“They say it’s all legacy pollution but it’s continuing,” Vogel says. “Before you can stop the water you have to turn off the tap.”

Independent analysis from a state regulatory agency supports NW Natural’s conclusion. In a March 19 letter to an ExxonMobil attorney, Dana Bayuk, a Department of Environmental Quality regulator, says the $21 million pump system NW Natural installed to prevent further contamination is functioning properly. Bayuk wrote that the agency found no proof that the petroleum products are still moving from the Gasco site into the river, as Vogel claims.

It is undisputed that there is some continuing pollution. NW Natural acknowledged that while its pump system filters out the vast majority of pollutants, a small amount of petroleum and cyanide molecules dissolved in shallow groundwater might still be flowing into the Willamette. Bayuk says contamination from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic compounds, metals, and cyanide is present on Northwest Natural’s Gasco property, and in Willamette River sediment. 

The disagreements show how the infighting among the more than 100 companies involved hampers the $1 billion project’s progress. The stakes have been raised as the cleanup has entered a new phase called “allocation,” determining which companies are responsible for which damages.

Imeson characterized the oil companies’ efforts as “trying to prejudice that process of allocation.” He says, “so far they haven’t been participating in much else related to the cleanup.”

In other words, millions of dollars in cleanup costs are at stake. Companies are willing to spend big to ensure they mop up only what they are responsible for.

“All of our actions today have been involved with moving forward with cleanup,” Imeson says. “We’re a little bit mystified by what their (the oil companies’) strategy is with all this.”

For a year and a half, the River 4-7 Mile Group paid for a study from scientific research firm NewFields and sent dozens of letters to the Department of Environmental Quality and Northwest Natural to demand action. Vogel says it’s possible to chemically fingerprint oil and petroleum products in the Willamette and trace them back to NW Natural’s Gasco site.

A letter to Bayuk from the group’s lawyers, dated April 18, questions the department’s conclusion and asks that the agency provide the data from its study. The authors ask DEQ to consider further Gasco-specific stormwater studies.

“NW Natural owes the public a plan they haven’t done yet,” Vogel says. “The folks that live here ought to care that it gets done, and gets done right.”

Imeson fires back that the large oil companies fixated on the Gasco site have done little else to aid the cleanup. He says the allocation process occurs separately of the Gasco issue, and can move forward unimpeded. NW Natural is currently working on several cleanup options for the Gasco site to present to the DEQ.

No matter what happens, a solution for the Superfund lies years in the future. The immensely complex allocation process will take several years at least.

“We’re not the ones who are in charge or delaying that process,” Imeson says. “All of our actions today have been involved with moving forward with cleanup. We’re a little bit mystified by what their (the oil companies’) strategy is with all this.”

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