Reconnecting Community to the River at Willamette Cove

By Bob Sallinger, Bird Alliance of Oregon; Cassie Cohen, Portland Harbor Community Coalition; Michael Pouncil, Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group; Travis Williams, Willamette Riverkeeper 

Willamette Cove is a 27-acre site owned by Metro, with approximately 3,000 linear feet of waterfront along the east bank of the Willamette River, just north of the Burlington Northern railroad bridge. It was purchased by Metro from the Port of Portland in 1996 for use as a natural area. However, nearly a quarter of a century has passed and the site remains posted as “No Trespassing” and fenced off from public use due to high levels of contamination with furans, dioxins, PCBs, lead, mercury, copper, hydrocarbons, and multiple other contaminants, which were released prior to Metro’s acquisition. Although Willamette Cove represents a relatively small portion of the approximately 20 miles of riverfront along the North Reach of the Willamette River that lie within the Portland Harbor Superfund Area, it looms particularly large as the Superfund cleanup process passes its twentieth year.

In recent months, community groups including Bird Alliance of Oregon, the Portland Harbor Community Coalition, Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group, and Willamette Riverkeeper have asked Metro to step up and make Willamette Cove a much higher priority. We have asked specifically that Metro initiate a community-based visioning and master planning process and advance a cleanup plan that maximizes human safety, ecological health, and future site use flexibility at Willamette Cove.

An aerial photo of the Willamette Cove site, showing the Willamette River and the waterfront.

Despite the significant size of the Portland Harbor Superfund Area—spanning ten linear miles of the Willamette River and covering more than 2,000 acres—and its close proximity to multiple neighborhoods including St. Johns, Linnton, Cathedral Park, University Park, and Overlook, there is little public access to the river. For decades, our community has largely been cut off from the North Reach of the Willamette due to a combination of heavy industrial development and toxic pollution. In 2000, the North Reach of the Willamette River was listed as a federal Superfund site, a designation reserved for the most hazardous contaminated sites in the country. Even on that regrettable list, the Willamette River stands out for its size, complexity, vast array of toxic contaminants and massive list of more than 150 polluters responsible for the contamination. For the past twenty years, our community has waged a tireless battle to hold polluters accountable, restore the river to health, and reconnect the community to the river—twenty years of endless meetings, reviewing tens of thousands of pages of complex documents and plans, attending hearings, and writing comments—and today the community is no closer to the river than when the listing occurred two decades ago.

However, that is about to change. The Superfund process has now entered the remedial design phase in which responsible parties are required to develop detailed cleanup plans for individual sites. Once those plans are approved, actual cleanup will finally begin. While every site is important, Willamette Cove stands out as one of the only public sites within the Superfund area where the public could gain new direct access to the river. For communities that have borne the burdens of a contaminated river for generations, Willamette Cove embodies the need to redress harms through renewed access, reclamation, and restoration. That will only happen if the Metro Council steps up.

Photo by Michael Pouncil

The cleanup of Willamette Cove is overseen by an alphabet soup of agencies. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees the in-water portions of the site while the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) oversees the uplands. While design of the in-water cleanup is just beginning, DEQ recently released a draft cleanup plan for the uplands that proposes to leave as much as 23,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil exceeding human health-based risk levels onsite by consolidating it and burying it underground beneath caps that will require monitoring into the unforeseeable future. The plan is predicated on an over-20-year-old Metro vision that included minimal community input and anticipated that the only public access at Willamette Cove would be restricted to the Willamette Greenway Trail on the outer edge of the property, disconnected from the river. The retention of toxic waste on the site would result in a situation where use of the site would be limited, activities such as picnic areas and children’s play areas might not be allowed, and permanent institutional controls including signage, fences, and other barriers may be required to restrict human activity. This plan is inadequate to meet community needs in general and places our most vulnerable populations, including the houseless community and people who rely on the Willamette River for subsistence, at particular risk. After decades of anticipation, our community deserves far better from Metro. 

The DEQ proposal has been met with fierce community opposition. Instead, the community has advocated for an alternative that would remove all contaminated soils from the uplands and place them in appropriate landfills while preserving native trees onsite. The difference in cost between DEQ’s preference and the more protective approach is estimated to be $2.8 million, not an insignificant sum of money, but also hardly unreasonable to restore this unique site in a manner that is safe for people and the environment for generations to come. The ongoing cost of monitoring would be nonexistent.

In August, our groups had the opportunity to present a more inclusive, inspirational, equitable, and just vision for Willamette Cove before the Metro Council. At the time, Metro Council seemed enthusiastic but since August has taken no action even as DEQ moves rapidly toward adoption of an inadequate final cleanup plan. We appreciate the ongoing efforts of Metro councilors Sam Chase and Bob Stacey to champion community priorities for Willamette Cove. It is now time for the entire Council to take action.

As the property owner, Metro needs to own responsibility for this process. It must pull together all the entities responsible for Willamette Cove, including the Port, City, and state and let the oversight agencies know that it intends to pursue a complete cleanup of this site. It should immediately initiate a community-based visioning and master planning process that allows this site to achieve its fullest potential for ecological and community health. Healing from the ongoing harmful exposure and exclusion from river access will require that Metro adopt inclusive procurement tools, including a community benefits agreement to ensure that every aspect of this process moving forward fulfills Metro’s commitment to equity and inclusion. Polluters should bear the full cost of cleanup, and Metro should invest whatever additional funds are necessary to truly achieve the community’s vision. Last year, voters in the Metro region passed a $475 million greenspace bond measure. Metro Council has already identified the Willamette Falls and Albina Vision sites as flagship projects for investment along the Willamette River as critical historical and cultural sites. Council must now add Willamette Cove to this string of jewels that remediate long-standing inequities as a way to honor the first peoples and the thousands of community members who have called and will continue to call this site their sanctuary, and to propel forward a vision of restoration, renewal, and reconnection.