EPA Beginning Anew at Portland Harbor Superfund Site?

Posted on October 18, 2017 by Rick Glick

Although no official pronouncement has been issued, it appears that EPA Headquarters is looking at resetting the scoreboard for the Portland Harbor Superfund site.  EPA had already signaled that it would be reviewing significant, long-unresolved Superfund sites with an eye toward streamlining the process.  However, the latest action on Portland Harbor may have the opposite effect, since EPA has not yet involved major stakeholders, including the State of Oregon, City of Portland, Port of Portland, or the tribes.

Portland Harbor is an 11-mile stretch of the Willamette River in industrial Portland.  After a 17-year, PRP-led remedial investigation process, at a cost exceeding $110 million, EPA Region 10 issued a Record of Decision (ROD) in the closing hours of the Obama Administration.  The ROD itself recognized that the baseline data upon which Region 10 relied in selecting its preferred remedy had grown stale, and called for another site-wide round of sampling prior to any Remedial Design for specific facilities. 

EPA now is negotiating with certain, undisclosed private responsible parties on an Administrative Order on Consent (AOC) and a new sampling plan.  A review of the current draft drew a sharp response from Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Director Richard Whitman.  In a letter dated October 5, 2017 to Acting Regional Administrator Michelle Pirzadeh, Whitman invoked a 2001 Memorandum of Understanding between EPA, the state and tribes on the process for investigation and cleanup of Portland Harbor.  The letter criticizes EPA for keeping the state in the dark and demands the opportunity to fully participate in and comment on the new planning work.  Similar objections were raised by Governor Kate Brown, the City of Portland and the Yakama Nation.

Director Whitman also voiced substantive concerns with new directions in the draft AOC.  These include revisiting assumed fish consumption rates, a “reset of achievable remedy targets/actions,” and a focus on downstream sites with “data gaps” within Portland Harbor itself.

There is much to be critical of in Region 10’s handling of the Portland Harbor site, and revisiting the Region’s conclusions is appropriate.  The assumptions driving the cleanup approach, emphasizing removal over natural riverine processes, could cost well over $1.5 billion for questionable environmental benefit.  Indeed, had EPA not added Portland Harbor to the National Priority List, Oregon DEQ would likely have implemented a cleanup plan incorporating routine Army Corps of Engineers maintenance dredging of the Willamette River at far less cost.  The resulting economic hit to the region will be enormous.

Still, I am reminded of Sen. John McCain’s famous thumbs down vote on bills to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.  Apart from substantive elements of the bills, Sen. McCain decried the absence of “regular order” in enactment of major legislation.  That is, the congressional leadership bypassed the usual committee and collaborative review that identifies and fixes problems with the bill and lends legitimacy to the outcome. 

Region 10 has responded well to the criticism.  Acting Administrator Michelle Pirzeda, sent a reply letter offering assurances that the state, city and tribes will be involved going forward.  The letter sets a deadline of October 24 to submit comments on the draft plan.

While unnecessary confrontation over who may participate in the process is averted for now, the substance of the Portland Harbor reset is likely to be contentious.  Watch this space for developments.

The Yanomami Model for Superfund

Posted on June 16, 2017 by Rick Glick

In a recent editorial, the Wall Street Journal celebrates the new priorities being set by Scott Pruitt’s EPA.  Mr. Pruitt, in the Journal’s opinion, is properly elevating the “more immediate” problem of Superfund sites over the “religion” of climate change.  Sadly, it seems, the misguided and naïve Obama Administration preferred “symbolic” climate measures over the more prosaic but urgent cleanup of Superfund sites. 

This of course is a false choice, since the country—and planet—must confront a wide array of pressing environmental problems.  Implementation of the Clean Power Plan doesn’t have much bearing on Superfund administration; both climate change and environmental cleanups need attention.  But aside from the Journal’s gratuitous trolling of climate policy, they are correct that Superfund is a program in need of reform.

One of the examples cited in the editorial is the Portland Harbor Superfund site, comprised of about 10 miles of contaminated river sediment.  Prior to listing, Oregon DEQ’s approach was to control potential ongoing contributions from upland sites, coordinate with the Army Corps of Engineers to remove the most serious pockets of contamination in the course of routine maintenance dredging, and then let natural riverine processes bury the rest.  There is a lot of science to support the notion that this approach would be plenty protective of human health and the environment.

Alas, EPA Region 10 added Portland Harbor to the National Priority List in 2000.  Seventeen years and over $100 million later, Region 10 issued its Record of Decision, but then hit the pause button because much of the data supporting the ROD had become stale.  A new round of sampling is soon to begin.  In the meantime, scores of PRPs are locked into the process with no way out until costs are fixed.  EPA currently pegs the cost at $1.05 billion, a figure no one but Region 10 believes to be close to the actual cost.

EPA’s selected remedy relies much more heavily on contaminant removal and capping, and less on natural processes, than the remedy proposed by the PRPs.  Unfortunately, EPA’s remedy does not reflect the enormous body of data that indicate such an aggressive approach is not necessary to protect people or the environment.  A prime driver for EPA is that it assumes a much higher rate of resident fish consumption by humans than do the PRPs’ scientists.  The region’s iconic salmon species migrate through the Portland Harbor without bioaccumulating toxins in the sediments.  Never has so much money been deployed to produce so little environmental benefit.

In his book In Trouble Again, the English gonzo explorer Redmond O’Hanlon describes his adventures trekking the Amazon rainforest and his encounter with the Yanomami people.  O’Hanlon witnessed the Yanomami blowing a hallucinogen called yoppo up each other’s noses and decided to give it a try.  What could possibly go wrong?  It turned out that the drug induced excruciating pain and that the only high he realized was relief when the effects wore off. 

As administered, Superfund is much like taking yoppo.  The process is so time consuming, expensive and uncertain that its chief benefit is to induce PRPs to enter state voluntary cleanup programs to avoid a federal Superfund listing.  Many more sites have been remediated, and I would bet at much lower cost, through such state programs than ever will through the formal Superfund process.

Applying EPA Guidance to Improve Sediment Site Cleanups

Posted on March 9, 2017 by Mark W. Schneider

After years of struggling to implement prompt and cost-effective cleanups of sediment sites under the Superfund program, EPA has adopted a new set of tools.  This would be a good time for EPA to conduct an unbiased evaluation of whether recent Records of Decision (“ROD”) issued for sediment sites comply with the Office of the Land and Emergency Management (“OLEM”) Directive 9200.1-130 (Jan. 9, 2017), and direct the regions to revise RODs where necessary. 

For example, Region 10 recently issued its ROD for the Portland Harbor, a complex, multi-party sediment site, which seems out of sync with the new guidance.  In particular, Region 10’s use of unachievable cleanup levels for several contaminants of concern, unwarranted assumptions about current and future land uses in certain areas of the site, and failure to properly assess background levels in some instances conflict with the Directive’s recommendations.

In prior posts, I advocated for actions that could help the agency, potentially responsible parties, and the public achieve success in sediment cleanups.  In one post, I recommended that Congress eliminate CERCLA’s bar on pre-enforcement review.  In another, I advocated for revision of the dispute resolution provisions in the model Administrative Settlement Agreement and Order on Consent (“ASAOC”) to require the selection of a neutral third party to resolve disputes between EPA and ASAOC respondents. The rationale for these earlier recommendations applies equally to this recommendation; each of them is intended to require EPA compliance with its own guidance and sound legal and scientific principles.  

In its directive, OLEM identified 11 recommendations “based on current best practices for characterizing sediment sites, evaluating remedial alternatives, and selecting and implementing appropriate response actions.”  In particular, OLEM directed the regions to “develop risk reduction expectations that are achievable by the remedial action.”  Most sediment RODs fail to comply with this “best practice.”  For example, EPA has repeatedly issued RODs that establish action levels that cannot be met using any current or reasonably foreseeable remedial technology, leading to remedies that are unrealistic and unnecessarily costly.  This causes potentially responsible parties to resist, resulting in litigation or delays that perhaps could have been avoided. 

EPA should apply its directive.  It should systematically review each sediment ROD issued in the last several years, determine whether and to what extent the ROD deviates from the OLEM directive, and instruct regional personnel to revise RODs to comply with the directive.  This would require a second look at the RODs at, among other sites, the Lower Duwamish Waterway, Portland Harbor, and the lower 8 miles of the Passaic River.  Review of these and other RODs might lead to more realistic cleanup decisions, reductions of risks, where necessary, and implementation of feasible remedies.