Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Willamette River and Soil Contamination

Portland, Oregon, in recent years, has become almost synonymous with hipsters. Among other things, the city is known for biking, our beautiful forests, sustainability, and of course, the river. In fact, one of the city’s many nicknames is Bridgetown, after the many bridges that stretch across the Willamette River. The river is such a big part of Portland that it’s an almost integral piece of the “Portland experience;” no visit to the city is complete without a stroll down the Portland waterfront. That makes it all the more tragic to acknowledge that the Willamette River has an ongoing pollution problem.

The sad truth is that this pollution is nothing new. Over a hundred years of industry on the river have, “left toxic contaminants in the soil and river sediments downstream from downtown Portland” (OPB). Much of the pollution originated from things like, “ship builders, wood treatment plants and lumber mills, steelmakers, bulk fuel storage facilities, pound gas production, chemical manufacturing and sewer overflows” (OPB). This was recognized as a problem as early on as the 1800’s when, “the people of early Portland complained that the river was unfit to drink from as a result of the City’s sewage discharges,” but the pollution wasn’t actually visible until the 1930’s (River Keeper). Real change, however, did not occur until the late 1960’s when the Governor Tom McCall spearheaded the effort to clean up the river. He was originally a reporter, but when he began, “working with the Legislature, McCall fought for cleaning the Willamette of its sewage and industrial waste. And less than a decade later, succeeded in clearing the water and returning lost salmon runs to the tributaries of the Willamette” (Griffith). These efforts, along with the recently completed Big Pipe Project that helped divert sewer and storm water runoff to treatment facilities, played a large roll in restoring the Willamette River to the way it is today.

Despite these efforts, the original problem remains in the form of heavy metals, pesticides, and chemicals that still coat the river bottom. It is a lingering remnant of the many decades of abuse that the river suffered. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, or the DEQ, eventually determined, “that the contamination is causing more toxicity among aquatic organisms and is bioaccumulating in fish tissue. The contaminated soil is subject to erosion into the river” (Law). In a nutshell, this means that leftover pollution deeply embedded within the river soil is continuously seeping into the water. It can harm fish and other wildlife, contaminate soil that the river runs through, and eventually harm human beings. This isn’t a problem that can wait another hundred years.

Fortunately, there are a few different ways to reduce the current pollution. The least drastic method involves allowing nature to eventually cover the contamination with clean sediment, but quicker solutions involve capping the contaminated soil with a clean layer of sand and soil. The most effective and drastic measure involves dredging, or digging p the contaminated soil and replacing it with cleaner materials. The DEQ eventually decided to employ a combination of these methods. For example, in late 2014 they ordered the Evraz Oregon Steel Mills to remove the soil along a section of the Willamette River. They specified that, “Evraz must dig down one to five feet below the surface to remove soil contaminated with PCBs and metals, and cover the site with rive rock,” as well as, “removed contaminated soil in steeper portions of the river banks that are susceptible to erosion, and cap and stabilize the river bank using “geotextile” fabric and rock” (Law). This project will not only cost a lot of money, but it will also take quite some time for it to be completed. It is comforting, however, to know that there is hope for the Willamette River.

There is a lot of work to be done before the river is truly clean, but a variety of organizations have dedicated themselves to helping. If you’re interested in becoming part of the change, visit the Willamette River Keeper. They dedicate their time to supporting research, patrolling the river, and teaching young students how to appreciate it. Their efforts may not be as drastic as dredging whole sections of the river, but every bit of sweat and effort will help restore Portland’s natural landmark to its former glory.


Image Sources: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Willamette_River_Portland_Oregon.jpg

Author: Hanna Bernhard, 2015

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