Tribal interests being ignored as groups try to influence Portland Harbor cleanup decision

03.14.2012 Dean Rhodes Culture, Federal government, Natural resources

As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moves closer to assigning responsibility for cleaning up the Portland Harbor Superfund site in the Grand Ronde Tribe's ceded lands, companies responsible for the pollution have been busy - without Tribal input - mounting a public information campaign that appears aimed at reducing their potential joint and individual costs.

Last October, 45 businesses that are "potentially responsible" for the cleanup who have become known as "the Gang of 45," pitched a 21-page white paper called "Risk Management Decisions Required" to the EPA.

The white paper challenges the EPA process as well as the risk assumptions and assessments that have been aired in the process of evaluating the site. The white paper's conclusions encourage a less rigorous and less expensive cleanup. There have been suggestions that no cleanup is needed at all.

Not surprising since the stakes are high. Current industry estimates for the harbor's cleanup range from $440 million to more than $2 billion although the EPA says those estimates might be on the high side.

"They are kind of steering and framing the questions before EPA gets their hands on it," said Michael Karnosh, the Grand Ronde Tribe's Ceded Lands Program manager and Tribal point man on the cleanup.

The Grand Ronde Tribe has been involved in the Portland Harbor Superfund site cleanup discussion since 1999, when discussion of a Superfund site for the area began.

On March 30, a draft feasibility study is due from many of the potentially responsible parties that make up another coalition called The Lower Willamette Group, which has agreed to propose how the cleanup should proceed and divide varying degrees of responsibility among more than 100 potentially responsible parties.

The proposal will go to the EPA first, then to public meetings held by the EPA and, finally, the EPA will decide to accept, amend or reject the proposal on the way to a final decision, called The Record of Decision, which is expected approximately a year after the feasibility study. Actual cleanup is not likely to begin before 2015.

Another white paper presented to the EPA in January, written by the Massachusetts-based consulting firm The Brattle Group, was funded by three potentially responsible parties, two of whom also funded the "Risk Management" white paper.

The Brattle Group paper, "Economic Impacts of Remediating the Portland Harbor Superfund Site," focuses on a "narrow" slice of potential cleanup solutions. It says that the cost of the cleanup project should be evaluated strictly on the number of cancer deaths expected from people eating fish caught in the harbor. The economic analysis ignores potential deaths from anything but cancer, environmental questions, lost Native cultural uses of the river and virtually any other data.

Trying to eliminate the biggest part of the cleanup, the paper said, "… EPA has acknowledged that remediation of the Portland Harbor would produce few ecosystem benefits."

Not true, said Chip Humphrey, EPA project manager for the Portland Harbor Superfund site.

"It's been projected that up to 7 percent of river areas are toxic to the bottom of the food chain (the benthic community) that lives in the sediment," Humphrey said.

"There are other risks for ecological receptors, and for the most part, human health remediation is less than for ecological receptors (including the benthic community and fish further up the food chain). Considering human health alone drives you to a lower number when looking at the cleanup."

"From the Tribe's perspective," said Karnosh, "one of the problems with cost-benefit analysis, there are a lot of values on the benefit side for an environmental cleanup, but it is tough to quantify them in terms of dollars.

"There are numerous costs associated with health care (in addition to people dying of cancer). If you're sick, your family has to take time off work. They're foregoing things to help take care of you.

"It's one thing to say one cancer death is worth X dollars (the Brattle Group paper puts the figure at $8 million), but first of all, putting a dollar value on a human life, that's something the Tribe has taken exception to in the past.

"Another cost for Tribes that is extremely difficult to put a dollar value on is the cost to traditional cultural practices. There's a cost to the culture when people aren't able to fish where their ancestors all fished, or able to gather crawdads, or things like that. It is something extremely difficult to put a dollar value on. How much is culture worth? It (the Brattle Group report) does not even attempt to answer that question."

One group, comprised of six private companies and two public agencies considered to be most responsible for pollution in the Willamette River, has developed a $500,000 campaign that it says is only trying to perform outreach and education. Four of the group's members are responsible for funding both of the white papers cited above.

John Donovan, vice president of the Metropolitan Group, with an office in Portland, is spokesman for this group calling itself the Portland Harbor Partnership.

"The impetus was to raise awareness and ask for public input on the river," said Donovan. "It is meant to be complementary to the EPA effort. We're intentionally not taking a position. Our intention is always to just provide information that is useful, but isn't considered advocacy."

The EPA's Humphrey supports that view. "So far," he said, "they haven't made separate arguments to us. What's sometimes confusing to us is their efforts have been largely educational."

Donovan says the group respects Tribal governments and is seeking their input, but contact with the Grand Ronde Tribe has been recent. They dropped surveys at the Tribe's Portland satellite office on Barbur Boulevard, and in an informal discussion with Tribal Public Affairs Director Siobhan Taylor the group invited the Grand Ronde Tribe to present Tribal cultural events at the harbor.

"This is our ceded homelands," said Taylor. "We should be involved in any campaign." She said she has had that single informal contact with the group, and the decision about participating is currently with Tribal Council.

Since last August, the Portland Harbor Partnership, which includes the Port of Portland, Oregon Department of State Lands, Calbag, Vigor, Schnitzer Steel/Schnitzer Investments, Evraz (formerly Oregon Steel), NW Natural and Gunderson, has hosted a few outdoor and dozens of indoor sessions with neighborhood and other interest groups, Donovan said.

The effort came as a big surprise to one Tribal member who attended one of the events.

Whereas the outreach from the EPA and state Department of Environmental Quality are simple affairs with PowerPoint presentations, but not even a cup of coffee within reach, the Portland Harbor Partnership affair had "greeters, free drinks. It was catered, professionally videotaped with two cameras, surrounded by professionally made backdrops with the message: 'Tell us your Willamette story.' "

"The Portland Harbor was not mentioned," the Tribal member, who asked not to be identified, recalls. "There was no discussion of the risk presented by the harbor's contamination. One academic said that the way to reduce the risk of ingesting toxins was to cut the fat off and don't eat the skin. But, of course, that doesn't work for fish poisoned with mercury."

And it does not indicate a commitment to cleaning up the pollution.

The EPA has nine criteria for evaluating the cleanup and no single issue paper will have undue influence, Humphrey said.

"We'll be soliciting public input, but we're looking for content, information that helps us change our minds, consider things that we haven't considered," he said. "The papers are just one of the factors."

And the influence of the companies involved also will be filtered through the local and regional political calculus. Members of the Oregon congressional delegation have taken a tugboat tour of the harbor and questioned the EPA on many aspects of the cleanup.

"This one seems to have a lot more political interest than most," said Humphrey. The effect of politics on the process, however, is not yet clear, he said.

Karnosh has seen political figures supportive of Tribal and environmental positions, and he has seen them supportive of business interests as well.

"Especially," Karnosh says, "in light of the economic situation. (They say,) 'Don't be too hard on these folks because they're providing jobs to the community.' There's definitely politics going on."

But, Karnosh added, the Tribe will continue working to ensure that the natural resources within its ceded lands that were injured are restored.