The Metro Council took a big step towards cleaning the upland portion of Willamette Cove when it voted unanimously to remove all moderately contaminated soil from Willamette Cove. The decision sets the direction of this years-long project that will eventually see the former industrial site open to the public as part of the Willamette River Greenway.
“Our region looks to us to take bold action to get to the root of problems, not just look for superficial, easy fixes. Metro looks years and even decades into the future and is acting on what this region needs,” said Metro Council President Lynn Peterson. “That’s true in our work to create permanent, affordable housing. It’s true in our work to protect and strengthen nature to make our region resilient to climate change. And it’s true here at Willamette Cove, where we have the opportunity to not just do a good job but do a great job that will benefit the entirety of the region for generations to come.”
"We have the opportunity to not just do a good job but do a great job that will benefit the entirety of the region for generations to come." Metro Council President Lynn Peterson.
The decision was praised by advocates and community members who had long called for the moderately contaminated soil to be removed from the site, rather than gathered and buried in an engineered container. Regional tribes consulted by Metro also urged for removal of all moderately contaminated soil.
Bob Sallinger, Audubon of Portland’s conservation director, praised the decision. “I think this is a really, really big deal,” he said. “The community has been working to recover and restore the north reach of the Willamette literally for decades and decades and decades.”
Sallinger said those efforts have been slow, but that Willamette Cove offers the opportunity to “create a vision for that area, one that is healthy and vibrant and safe.”
Removing the soil will cost more than consolidating it onsite, largely because of increased fuel, labor and disposal costs from hauling the soil. A recent report estimated that the cleanup would cost about $17.5 million. However, that estimate is very rough and will change as the cleanup design process gets underway. The Council decided that removing the soil was worth the extra cost.
The North Portland property lies between St. Johns Bridge and the Burlington Northern Railroad Bridge. Its 27-acre site is separated from the St. Johns neighborhood by 50-foot cliffs, creating a riverside refuge away from the city. The upland curves around its namesake cove. It’s filled with Oregon white oaks and madrone, along with a few signs of its industrial past.
For all its beauty, it can’t be stressed enough that Willamette Cove is not safe to visit. The soil is filled with toxic metals and dioxins, which can have profound long-term effects on human health. There’s a reason Metro and the Port are cleaning the site.
Metro and the Port of Portland are partnering on the cleanup of the upland portion of the cove, which starts at the riverbank and goes inland and is overseen by DEQ, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. The State of Oregon, City of Portland and the Port are designing the in-water cleanup, which is overseen by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The cleanup is still years away, and it’s not clear when the site will be opened to the public. The cleanup is likely to alter the terrain, which in turn would affect where future amenities like a trail or benches would be placed. The decision to remove the soil, along with a detailed soil analysis underway now, gives planners a clearer idea of what the site will look like after cleanup.
In turn, the decision on soil removal allows Metro to begin a meaningful engagement process where community members will be able to influence the activities and amenities available at Willamette Cove. Ultimately, Metro will create a space that provides people access to nature and gives plants and animals the space they need to thrive. It’s something Metro has done successfully at Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area in North Portland, and at Chehalem Ridge and Newell Creek Canyon nature parks, which opened last year.
Last year, DEQ set its requirements for a site cleanup that would allow people to safely access the entire property. The prescribed remedy required Metro and the Port to remove all “hotspot” and “highly contaminated” soils—terms that indicate levels of toxins for people to be exposed to even briefly. That soil would be hauled to a waste facility. Moderately contaminated soil would be collected on site and then buried in an engineered earthen container and covered in three feet of clean soil. A consolidation area, as it’s called, is a standard method of safely mitigating contaminants in sites that will be used by people.
Usually, DEQ sets its parameters, and that’s that. This time, DEQ gave Metro the option of going above and beyond the preferred remedy. During its review, DEQ received nearly 200 comments from community members and advocates asking for more contamination to be removed from the site. Commenters also raised concerns that a major earthquake or flood could cause the consolidation area to fail.
At the Council meeting, Oregon State Representative Khanh Pham expressed those worries: “Given that Willamette Cove is on a liquefaction zone and climate change is intensifying both rainfall and flood as well as heat and drought and other destabilizing extreme weather events, I do not support any permanent storage of toxic sediment on the site.”
In response to these concerns, DEQ told Metro it could remove more of the moderately contaminated soil. Since DEQ made its decision, the Metro Council considered its unexpected option.
Willamette Cove is part of the 10-mile-long Portland Harbor Superfund that stretches from downtown Portland to just shy of the mouth of the Willamette River. From the 1900s to the 1970s, Willamette Cove hosted a series of industrial businesses including a barrel-making factory, plywood fabricator and dry docks. The contamination at the site came from these facilities.
Metro purchased the land in 1996, with hopes to build the Willamette Greenway Trail through the site. Contamination was much worse and widespread than expected, and Metro and the Port of Portland entered a voluntary cleanup agreement with DEQ.
Metro has worked with partners over the years on several cleanup efforts, including in summer 2004 when a cap was constructed in a portion of Willamette Cove. In 2008, soil with high metal concentrations were removed from the central portion of the site.
In 2015 and 2016, Metro partnered with the Port of Portland to remove soil throughout the site with the highest risk levels of contamination.
Extensive soil sampling is underway in both the upland and in-water sections of Willamette Cove. Past soil sampling showed where contaminants were across the site. The current testing will provide more precision about where contaminants are and, critically, how deep they go into the ground.
Once this data is collected, Metro and the Port can create detailed cleanup plans, which are due to DEQ in spring 2024.