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The Story of the Willamette River

In the 1700’s, the Willamette River was clean and pristine. Native Americans fished salmon and existed peacefully with the natural ebb and flow of seasonal flooding. In the 1800’s, a flood of settlers brought tremendous changes, altering the river’s natural course, controlling seasonal flooding and polluting to a detrimental extent. Hundreds of industries developed along the river’s banks, depositing heavy metals, pesticides, and other toxic chemicals into the water, soil and river sediment for over a century.

Paper mill on the Willamette River, Oregon City, 1950s. Source: http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/coll/f059/imagecredits.html

Paper mill on the Willamette River, Oregon City, 1950s. Source: http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/coll/f059/imagecredits.html

It wasn’t until the 1970’s that pollution abatement and control measures began making the largest improvements in these point source contributors. In the 90’s, the city discovered that water quality was also suffering terribly from nonpoint source pollution, largely from runoff. When it rains, upland contamination from roads, lawns, farms and industrial sources is washed directly into the river, where it poses significant threat to human and environmental health.

A map of the Portland Harbor Superfund site. Source: http://www.epa.gov/region10/images/sites/portlandharbor/location_map.jpg

A map of the Portland Harbor Superfund site. Source: http://www.epa.gov/region10/images/sites/portlandharbor/location_map.jpg

Sections of the Willamette were found to be so polluted that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) added the Portland Harbor to the Superfund national priority list in 2000. A Superfund is the federal government’s program to clean up the nation’s uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. The Portland Harbor Superfund site spans an 11-mile stretch of the Willamette, from the Broadway Bridge to Sauvie Island. Extensive testing in the area has found 29 different toxic compounds that pose a risk to human health and 89 compounds that pose a risk to ecological health. Some of the biggest threats to human health come from eating contaminated fish that reside in the Willamette, such as bass, catfish, carp and sculpin.

Since 2000, a handful of cleanups have taken place, however, many changes continue to be made and are still necessary in order to improve Willamette River water quality and protect the health of the environment and community—especially those who are most vulnerable to the effects of the Willamette River’s contamination. The main challenges are to eliminate Combined Sewer Overflows (that result in raw sewage discharges directly into the river) and to eliminate toxic runoff from flowing directly into the Willamette River.

Join the Portland Harbor Community Coalition today in advocating for the clean up of the Portland Harbor Superfund site.

For more information on the Willamette River and the Portland Harbor Superfund, visit:

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