Restoring Portland Harbor
by Lyla Boyajian | last updated November 2023
Fishing from the bank at Cathedral Park in Portland, Oregon. Photo by NOAA/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Crag represents the Nez Perce Tribe’s interests in cleaning up contamination and restoring habitats in the Portland Harbor Superfund project on the Willamette River.
The lower stretch of the Willamette River, near its confluence with the Columbia River, has long been central to the livelihoods and traditions of the people who live here. This area, now known as Portland Harbor, provides fresh water, natural resources, transportation, and is a place for people to trade. For thousands of years native peoples–including members of the Nez Perce Tribe–gathered, celebrated, traded, fished, and held ceremonies along the river.
Pictured: Crag Executive Director Courtney Johnson and Associate Attorney Rebeka Dawit in front of the Willamette River during a Portland Harbor site visit in Summer 2023.
Since Portland was founded in 1851, the harbor has changed dramatically. The Willamette River was used as an open sewer for decades. Lumber, steel, railcar, and other industries have released contaminants into the river for more than a hundred years. In 2000, Portland Harbor was declared a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency because contamination was a threat to human health and the environment. In 2002 a Natural Resource Trustee Council was formed to oversee the restoration of the Portland Harbor. The Nez Perce Tribe is a member of the Trustee Council.
The goals of the cleanup are to remove toxic sediments from the riverbed and banks so that the river is safe for people to work and play in, fish are safe to eat, and the ecosystem is healthy. The goals of the natural resource assessment are to restore habitat to support salmon, bald eagles, mink, and other fish and wildlife that were lost as a result of the historic contamination.
“Cleaning up and restoring the Portland Harbor is important for all Oregonians, but it will also be one small step towards righting the many injustices done to the Nez Perce Tribe.”
What's at Stake
Portland Harbor has been heavily polluted by contaminants, including PCBs, PAHs, DDT, dioxins, furans, and heavy metals. These contaminants damage habitats and enter food chains in the water and the land around the river, and the impacts of this pollution can last for decades. As a result, Tribal members lose access to cultural resources and traditions, like fishing. When Tribal members cannot participate in these activities, other cultural losses occur, such as language and storytelling related to those activities and places. Recreational activities like boating, fishing, and wildlife observation are also affected by pollution. In 2004 the Oregon Health Authority issued a fish consumption advisory for the harbor that severely limits the number of resident fish that can be safely consumed. That advisory remains in place today.
A rich network of natural resources are threatened by the contamination. Fish like salmon, lamprey, and sturgeon are threatened, but it doesn’t stop there. Many other animals rely on these fish for food, and when they eat the fish, they are also eating pollution. Some of these animals are the bald eagle, osprey, and the mink. Even on the most basic level, pollution has led to the contamination of sediments and soils, which means that these contaminants will remain in the area and could continue to cause problems in the Portland Harbor area for years.
Since Portland Harbor is a superfund site, the cleanup will be paid for by the industries that are responsible for the pollution. There is a long history of pollution in a large area of Portland Harbor, so it has been difficult for these potentially responsible parties to agree on who will pay for different portions of the cleanup. Nevertheless, the responsible government agencies have a duty to ensure cleanup to a level that protects human health and ecological resources. And the natural resource trustees will seek compensation from the parties responsible for the contaminants to restore, rehabilitate, or replace the injured natural, recreational, and cultural resources.
The Nez Perce historically hunted and fished on 14 million acres of land, in north-central Idaho, northeastern Oregon, and southeastern Washington. Tribal members would travel as far as Montana to the east and west all the way to the Willamette River for seasonal fishing and gathering events. The Tribe’s current reservation lands on the Clearwater River are connected by flows from the Snake River and the Columbia to the Pacific Ocean.
Much of this land is no longer what it once was. The Tribe’s territory has been taken by colonizers, given away by the federal government, and reduced by treaties that decimated reservation lands. While the Tribe’s treaties expressly reserve members’ rights to fish, hunt, and gather at all “usual and accustomed” places beyond reservation boundaries, today many historic hunting and fishing grounds have become inaccessible or polluted. In December of 2000, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) named an 11-mile stretch of the lower Willamette River, from where the Willamette meets the Columbia to near the Broadway Bridge in Portland, a “Superfund” site under federal law. This means that over 100 years of industrial uses and landfilling along the river have contaminated the riverbed and shore sediments and injured natural and cultural resources in the river.
At the Superfund site, the EPA identifies the type of contamination and how much damage it has done, and then figures out what the risks are to the health of people and nature. Then, the EPA develops a plan to clean up the river. EPA and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality work together to restore river health to protect the river’s future. At the same time, trustees for the public and Tribes study the effects of the pollution and assess the damage so that long-term recovery can start. These trustees may also suggest restoration projects to help important species like salmon, eagles, and mink recover. Restoration will improve habitat along the lower Willamette River shorelines and floodplains, and there will be specific work to restore habitat where injured fish and wildlife need it the most.
The Nez Perce Tribe is a trustee of natural and cultural resources in the river, and is a governmental partner with EPA in the cleanup process. The public also plays an important role through the Community Advisory Group and the Portland Harbor Collaborative Group. Crag represents the Tribe in its role in both the cleanup and restoration of Portland Harbor.
Crag Executive Director and Staff Attorney Courtney Johnson is representing the Nez Perce Tribe in the Portland Harbor cleanup and restoration.
Check out the Nez Perce Tribe’s fact sheet on Cultural Impacts of Contamination at the Portland Harbor Superfund Site.
Take a look at the Portland Harbor Superfund Storymap.
Read the about the November 2023 proposed natural resource restoration agreements on the Portland Harbor Natural Resource Trustees website.
On November 1, 2023, Tribal, state and federal natural resource trustees and over 20 potentially responsible parties (PRPs) at the Portland Harbor Superfund Site in Oregon proposed settlements in federal court. The agreements, with an estimated restoration value of approximately $33.2 million, require the PRPs to pay cash damages or purchase credits in projects to restore salmon and other natural resources that were lost due to contamination released from the responsible parties’ facilities into the Willamette River. This settlement includes more than $600,000 in damages for the public’s lost recreational use of the river, and restoration and monitoring of culturally significant plants and animals.
“The Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon and the Nez Perce Tribe wholly support this settlement,” said the Five Tribes. “Contamination has uniquely affected tribal members because of their cultural use of and relationship with affected natural resources in and around the Portland Harbor Superfund Site. The Five Tribes believe the collaborative process of this settlement represents the best path forward for restoring Portland Harbor natural resources for the benefit of both current and future generations.”
The agreements result from an early settlement collaboration between the natural resource trustees at the Portland Harbor Superfund Site and a group of PRPs who participated in that effort. Negotiations are continuing with other PRPs that also are participating in the trustees’ early settlement initiative. If the trustees reach agreements in those ongoing negotiations, it could include additional cash settlements or restoration credit purchases in the four restoration projects.
Read more on the Portland Harbor Natural Resource Trustees website: https://www.fws.gov/portlandharbor/news/two-consent-decrees-lodged