Payers Fret Over ‘Lowballed' EPA Cleanup Cost for Portland Harbor

The business and public agencies criticized an earlier EPA cost estimate to clean up the Portland Harbor Superfund site as too high. Now they worry a revised estimate is too low, while environmental activists think the EPA plan doesn’t go far enough. (Photo courtesy: The Oregonian/Oregonlive)

The business and public agencies criticized an earlier EPA cost estimate to clean up the Portland Harbor Superfund site as too high. Now they worry a revised estimate is too low, while environmental activists think the EPA plan doesn’t go far enough. (Photo courtesy: The Oregonian/Oregonlive)

Businesses and public agencies that will foot the bill for cleaning up Portland Harbor find themselves in the awkward position of questioning whether the Environmental Protection Agency lowballed a cost estimate in its plan released in June.

Some 150 potentially responsible parties who are on the hook to pay for pollution remediation earlier complained the price tag was too high. EPA officials say they agreed and lowered the Superfund cleanup cost estimate from $1.4 billion to  $746 million. An even earlier EPA estimate was pegged at $2 billion.

Payers worry because they say the EPA didn’t alter its cleanup recommendations that much to justify cutting the cost in half. The Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group, which advises the EPA, has a similar concern, as the Portland Tribune's Steve Law reported this week.

“We asked them how can costs suddenly be so much less,” said Barbara Quinn, a member of the advisory group who lives near Portland Harbor, “and we really didn’t get any good answers.” EPA officials say they have refined the cost estimate for the cleanup, which is expected to take seven years to complete, after making adjustments to their recommendations.

Meanwhile, environmental activists have chastised the EPA plan as a “capitulation to industrial polluters,” a violation of tribal fishing rights and something far short of what is needed to clean up the Willamette River.

Environmental discontent with the EPA plan stems largely from its reliance on natural recovery, rather than dredging, to cleanse a significant portion of the Superfund site. The EPA defended natural recovery as “the most cost-effective approach” to cleaning up 1,900 acres of the 2,200-acre site. Activists want the EPA to require dredging for half or more of the site.

The EPA is accepting comments on its plan and cost estimate. The 30-day window for comments also irked environmental activists who complained it was foolish to rush public input after the EPA took 16 years to study the problem and come up with its recommendation.

While business and public sector payers aren’t rooting for higher costs, they also don’t want to sign on to a plan only to discover later that the actual cost is much higher, plus the cost of litigation to settle who pays what.

Based on other Superfund cleanups, initial cost estimates have been off by as much as 100 percent, according to Michael Jordan, the director of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services. Jessica Hamilton, who manages the Port of Portland’s harbor environmental activities, said the new price tag appears “artificially too low.”

The challenge for any major project like this is to find the sweet spot where investments generate the maximum benefits. At some point, additional investment only drives diminished benefits. By way of example, Jordan said Portland spent $1.44 billion on the Big Pipe project to keep 96 percent of city sewage from spilling into the Willamette River. He said it would have cost $4.5 billion to achieve a 100 percent reduction.