EPA is proposing to add Bradford Island, located within the Bonneville Dam complex, to its National Priorities List for clean up of toxic chemicals. Also known as Superfund sites, the list includes the nation's most serious contamination problems, making them eligible to receive federal funding for long-term cleanup.
In a Sept. 8 announcement, the agency identified four sites it determined will be added to the list and 13 newly proposed sites—including Bradford Island.
"We put up a united front, and it has paid off," Richard Whitman, director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said in a news release after EPA's announcement. If listed, Bradford Island will be the first new Superfund site in Oregon in 10 years and would join 13 other cleanup sites in the state.
The proposed listing follows a joint effort with formal requests by Oregon, Washington, and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation to add the site to the Superfund list. After their initial request in 2019, they renewed the request this year with another joint letter to EPA, hoping the new Biden administration would be more responsive.
Several environmental groups also asked for the EPA's help, and in June Columbia Riverkeeper submitted over 1,500 petitions seeking a Superfund listing.
In July, federal Democratic lawmakers from Oregon joined the effort with a letter to EPA, signed by Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeffrey Merkley, and Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici. "Decades after the original pollution occurred, tissue from resident fish caught at Bradford Island contain the highest levels of cancer-causing PCBs in the Pacific Northwest," their letter states.
Laura Shira, an environmental engineer and hydrologist in the Yakama Nation's fisheries program, said during a webinar in May that multiple resident fish caught at Bradford Island in 2011 had tissue concentrations that were more than 100,000 times the levels considered safe for human consumption (CU No. 2007 ).
"The Columbia is a cherished resource for the residents of Washington and Oregon, and the people of the Yakama Nation," Washington Department of Ecology Director Laura Watson said in a news release after EPA's announcement. "We are hopeful that this highly contaminated site will finally get the resources it needs to ensure a cleaner river with healthier salmon."
If the site becomes listed, it will not impact power generation at Bonneville Dam, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman John Morgan. The Corps operates the site. As part of the Bonneville Dam complex, the natural island is between the spillway and the first powerhouse, and has hosted a variety of activities since dam construction including project maintenance, housing, equipment storage, chemical storage and waste disposal. The Corps began investigating the potential contamination in 1998. In 2000, when electrical equipment was discovered submerged in the river, the study was expanded to include the north shore of the island.
According to the states, the Corps used parts of the island as a landfill from 1942 to 1982, dumping electrical equipment that contained polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)—a highly toxic substance that does not readily break down and has been documented in high levels in fish tissues.
Although salmon and steelhead caught above and below Bonneville Dam are considered safe to eat, a fish advisory issued by both Washington and Oregon warns people not to eat any resident fish caught in a 1-mile stretch of river above the dam, and to limit consumption to one resident fish per week in a 146-mile stretch above the dam.
According to EPA's description of the site, Bradford Island's contamination includes a 22-acre location in the eastern half of the island with four known areas of concern, and a 240-acre site in the river adjacent to the island. Hazardous substances include PCBs, butyltins, herbicides, metals, pesticides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, semivolatile organic compounds and volatile organic compounds.
Morgan said in an email that if the site becomes listed, EPA will assume oversight of the ongoing cleanup efforts from the Corps. He wrote that the agency is currently conducting soil and fish sampling and evaluations as it works to complete two feasibility studies.
"Since the discovery of contaminants, we have committed to cleaning up Bradford Island as authorized under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act," a statement from the Corps says. "Our remediation efforts will continue as Bradford Island goes through the process of being listed on the Environmental Protection Agency's National Priority List. We welcome EPA's expertise in cleaning up hazardous waste sites and tackling threats to public health and our natural environment."
EPA's site description says that after discarded electrical equipment and debris were discovered in the river just north of Bradford Island, the Corps removed old equipment in the early 2000s and the most contaminated sediments in 2008. It says that no additional cleanup work has been done since, although additional investigations have been done.
According to the Corps' website, the agency dredged about 1 acre of river bottom to remove PCB contamination in 2007 and evaluated impacts in 2012. Further assessments to evaluate human health and ecological risks were completed in 2016.
They identified four areas on the island for study, including a landfill that contained discarded paint, oil, grease, solvents, mercury-vapor lamps, switchgear and insulators. A pistol range used for target practice is contaminated with low concentrations of lead and zinc; a sandblast area used for sandblasting and painting contains metals and other industrial components; and a bulb slope has lightbulb debris, including low concentrations of PCBs, mercury and lead.
EPA will now begin its rulemaking process which includes opportunities for public input. The agency is expected to decide in 2022 whether to add Bradford Island to its Superfund list.