Healing Portland Harbor after the clean-up

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Dec. 10, 2009. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary. There is one comment at the original post.]

I went to a Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group meeting last night at which was discussed the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) process. Tonight there will be a forum for public commentary on the NRDA that was presented last night; I won’t be able to attend this meeting due to prior commitments.

First, an overview of what I learned at this meeting; second, some thoughts spurred by what I learned.

The NRDA process is led by the Portland Harbor Natural Resource Trustee Council. Trustee Council members include representatives of five regional tribes, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Department of the Interior (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)), and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).

The NRDA process will restore habitat and compensate the public for the loss of recreation, cultural resources, and other within the Willamette River Superfund site.

The NRDA process is not linked directly to the City of Portland’s North Reach plan, but individual members of both groups are aware of one another’s efforts. The NRDA process is being carried out at the same time as the EPA’s Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup efforts, which may result in dredging, earth-moving, and/or capping of various areas along the riverbank. The NRDA will then provide habitat restoration to these cleaned-up areas.

The NRDA is working with a group of Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs) who may be liable for varying amounts of funding to support these restoration/compensation efforts. However, the PRPs will only be responsible for compensating for loss of habitat beginning in 1980, when the NRDA law was passed.

One of the key difficulties of the NRDA process is delineating between NRDA-compensable damages caused by hazardous substances, and damages caused by channel dredging, development, and related changes.

Here are some thoughts . . .

** This process brings up an interesting question about the term “restoration” itself. The NRDA Trustee Council is well aware of the impossibility of attaining some kind of idealized, pre-contact restoration goal. The NRDA process they’re contributing to seeks to restore biota impacted by hazardous wastes and does not include removal of existing structures (buildings, retaining walls, roads, pilings, etc.). Therefore, what they’re trying to do is enhance the river environment so that it can better support salmon and other native plants and animals within the context of 150+ years of changes within Portland Harbor; one member of the Citizens Advisory Group said that he preferred the term “enhancement” to “restoration” because of this important point. This specific definition of what “restoration” means is in contrast to hands-in-the-air, too-complex-to-address perspectives that we so often hear from ideologically-driven people who do not take the time to understand the issue.

** The NRDA, Superfund, and North Reach projects are examples of a key argument of scholars studying environmental history: Here we have a golden example of how environmental values change over time, and how important it is to understand the historical contingencies that lead to these changes.

The general pattern of change in environmental values in the U.S. is that at some time in the mid-twentieth century, society shifted from valuing the environment solely from an extractive, producerist point of view to finding value in the environment itself — this would be a consumerist point of view, valuing untrammeled nature itself as worthy of sustaining. Scholars find roots of this change in values as early as the mid-nineteenth century in the writings of Thoreau, Muir, etc. This shift became much more of a mainstream perspective at least by the 1920s, and in full-force by the 1960s. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, both of these value systems are in view, and continue to come in to conflict, but there is a fundamental difference in the ways in which Americans ca. 2009 approach the environment compared to Americans ca. 1939 — one need look no further than the array of environmental laws passed since the 1940s to see evidence of this.

One conclusion that the general narrative above leads us to is that with this shift in values has come a change in legislation and regulation, and, with this, a shift in prioritizing financial resources. A producerist view of the environment finds the most financial value in extracting the highest amount of money from environmental resources with disregard for any detrimental externalities. The consumerist point of view, in contrast, finds value in limiting the financial returns of extraction (and processing, transport, etc.) to invest financial resources into preservation, conservation, restoration.

Therefore, viewed within the simplistic calculus that so many conservatives & libertarians would prefer we all view such things, what has happened is that society as a whole — propelled by at least a small majority of its members — has modified its relationship to money, which means that the all-powerful “market” has spoken from on high and finds value in channeling capital into other-than-capitalist-bottom-line areas of investment. No longer does the American system of capitalism favor a laissez-faire approach to the environment. This seems a profound historical shift to me that has enormous repercussions and should not go without realizing. I grant that there are plenty of qualifications, caveats, questions, etc., but the underlying pattern remains.

** Along the lines traced above, in the case of the Willamette River cleanup, what we have now is a case of the money invested during previous generations in extracting resources and building processing and transport systems to deliver and market these resources can be seen as a negative-investment that we have now taken upon ourselves to repay. Perhaps one could spin this a different way and find that last week’s extraction and processing led to yesterday’s pollution, which today we’re trying to un-do by paying people tomorrow and in days to come to design and implement remediation solutions: finding positive opportunities even in seemingly negative situations! My question is, as hard as this might be to tabulate: I wonder if the original return-on-investment from these environmentally-destructive practices of yore are worth it, within the context of the investments that now must be paid to overcome these impacts? If we had been able to put all the profits from polluting businesses into the bank during their years of operation, would there be enough money to pay for necessary remediation in the years to come?

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  1. My view of the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group meeting, April 14, 2010 | Speaking for the River

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