Reclaiming Ross Island

by Bob Sallinger, Conservation Director

Bird Alliance of Oregon has been engaged with efforts to protect and restore Ross Island for more than 40 years. We consider it a top priority site for protection and restoration within the Portland metropolitan region. Ross Island provides important habitat for migratory birds and federally listed salmonids. It also provides outstanding opportunities for experiencing and enjoying nature within the urban core. A significant undeveloped portion of the island was transferred to the City of Portland in 2007 after Bird Alliance of Oregon, Urban Greenspaces Institute, and Willamette Riverkeeper worked with Ross Island Sand and Gravel Company (RISG) owner Dr. Robert Pamplin to facilitate the transfer.

Aerial view of Ross Island in Portland OR
Ross Island, photo by Eric Prado

However, important and long overdue work remains to reclaim Ross Island. RISG continues to own a significant portion of the island and also the lagoon. Although it is no longer operational, a large industrial processing plant sits on Ross Island. RISG is also more than a decade behind on obligations to reclaim (restore) both the Ross Island Lagoon and uplands from the impacts of decades of mining by the company. At the current pace, it would not complete the work until 2053, an astounding 41 years behind schedule, and there is no guarantee that they will even meet that schedule. They have been able to get away with this because in 2000, state agencies substantially lowered RISG’s reclamation obligations to focus on the most important restoration activities in exchange for an obligation to complete the work by 2012, but then in an omission they have never been able to explain, failed to include enforceable timeline, end date, or penalty provisions in the permits that were issued. Yes, that is as bizarre as it sounds.

To make matters more complex and concerning, Willamette Week has been reporting that RISG recently quietly transferred its interest in the island to its employee pension fund. Rather than paying into the fund, RISG instead gave the fund ownership of an island with substantial legal liabilities. Yes, that is as bizarre as it sounds as well.

State agencies, including the Department of State Lands (DSL) and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), have an important opportunity right now to step up and ensure that RISG meets all of its environmental obligations and that it does so on a reasonable but aggressive timeline. RISG has approached the agencies to renegotiate its permits in a way that would again reduce its environmental restoration activities.

Any new agreements with Ross Island Sand and Gravel Company must include the following:

    • An enforceable completion date for all reclamation obligation of no later than 2028, with significant penalty provisions if timelines are not met. This will still mean that RISG finishes 16 years behind schedule.
    • Establish a scientific review panel to ensure that any substantive modifications to the permits meet the ecological goals in the 2000 agreements.
    • Require full bonding for all reclamation activities. RISG’s transfer of ownership of their holdings to their pension fund raises serious legal and financial questions.
    • Initiate processes to evaluate the status of the non-operational RISG processing plant on the island to determine if there are environmental threats present.
    • Require that RISG allow access to portions of the river they control (although it is rare in Oregon, RISG owns significant acres of river bottom) for enforcement activities such as removal of derelict boats and enforcement of no-wake zones.
    • Prohibit use of contaminated fill on both the uplands and in water portions of the restoration project.

Bird Alliance of Oregon and partners such as Willamette Riverkeeper and Urban Greenspaces Institute have submitted substantial comments to DSL and DEQ. Thanks to all of our activists who also sent comments. We will continue to track this closely as it evolves. It is time, long past time, really, to reclaim Ross Island.