Archive for category Portland Metro Area

When the polluted Willamette River caught fire

Another thing I’ve heard said recently (and over the years) is that the Willamette River was so polluted through Portland Harbor that it caught fire. Like the Cuyahoga River had done. Wow–that’s spectacular, and tragic!

It didn’t happen.

I state that with a very high level of confidence, having read at least 700 newspaper articles between 1906 and 1996 and conducted extensive archival research into the records of the State Game Commission, State Fish Commission, State Board of Health, Oregon State Sanitary Authority, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and City of Portland. With this knowledge, the assertion that the Willamette caught fire seemed apochryphal. Out of curiosity, I then searched the Internet for blog posts or other sources for the urban myth. While I didn’t find any blog posts, I did find quite a few news reports of warehouse, dock, or houseboat fires over the years, but nothing about any grand conflagrations of the kind that occurred on the Cuyahoga.

So, if you ever hear anyone make this claim, you now know it’s not true!


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On the Siting of Portland’s Wastewater Treatment Plant: Environmental Racism, or Not?

I heard a statement recently suggesting that one of the reasons the City of Portland built its wastewater treatment plant where it did–at the far north of the city–was that this was where people of color lived. The decision was, therefore, an example of environmental racism, whereby white civic leaders burdened communities of color with urban infrastructure that wouldn’t have been tolerated in white, affluent neighborhoods.

Having read sanitary engineer Dr. Abel Wolman’s 1939 report on the Portland’s sewer system, I knew first-hand the engineering logic behind this decision. I didn’t know enough about the area in which the treatment plant was built to have a perspective on the question of whether or not its siting was an example of environmental racism. With help from the experts at the City of Portland Archives, it was time for some research!

Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant ca. 2018 (Google Maps)

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Environmental justice tour of Portland, Feb. 3, 2018

Looking southwest from Willamette Boulevard just east of the University of Portland. Mocks Bottom is in the foreground, Swan Island beyond that, and the West Hills of Portland in the background. Feb. 3, 2018.


Luna and I had a fun time yesterday participating in Youth for a Livable Planet’s Environmental Justice Tour of Portland. At four locations on the east side of the city, we learned something about key environmental, social, and demographic changes in the city over the past 15,000+ years. We started at the Moda Center with a grounding in deep geologic history and the history of the Chinookan and Kalapyan peoples. Hopping-on the MAX Yellow Line, we alighted to the Albina Neighborhood, where we got an overview of the history of peoples of color in Oregon broadly and Portland particularly. Vanport was our third stop on the tour, where a representative of Portland Harbor Community Coalition spoke in depth about the creation (1943) and catastrophic dissolution (1948) of Vanport. The fourth station was at the University of Portland, where we had lunch and learned more about the Portland Harbor Community Coalition’s mission “elevating the most-impacted groups (Native Americans, African-Americans/Black, immigrants, and houseless) in the billion dollar federal cleanup of the eleven mile Willamette River ‘Superfund’ site, Portland Harbor.”

This was the second of three such tours the group has planned during the current academic year. This was my first time participating. I did so to have a fun, educational time with Luna and to meet the organizers. I also wanted to get a feel for the structure and content of the tour so I might prepare materials and contribute to the next one, planned for April.


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“A City’s Lifeblood”

Julia Rosen wrote an interesting article for the Oregon Humanities website on the topic of Willamette River cleanup titled “A City’s Lifeblood”  (Aug. 22, 2017). She focuses on an important topic to investigate and document: racial/ethnic issues related to Willamette River and Columbia Slough pollution, including current clean-up and environmental enhancement plans. She had spoken with me a few months prior to publication to learn about the early days of pollution and pollution abatement.

As readers of my book will find, I don’t have much to say regarding the involvement of Native Americans, African Americans, or other non-white individuals or communities in cleanup efforts from the 1920s into the 1970s. This is because my research didn’t uncover anything explicitly on this topic. There are a few reasons why . . .

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Portland harbor wall, then-and-now

Aerial of completed harbor wall, 1929 (City of Portland, Series 8402-01)

A few days ago, the Oregonian ran a “then-and-now” article on Portland’s harbor wall. In it, author John Killen referenced one of my posts, “Construction of Portland Harbor wall, 1927-1929.”

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Portland Harbor Death Zone: V. 2, with a bonus!

Hillegas-Elting Final Project Map

My final project for the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) course I took during the Fall 2013 quarter offered me the opportunity to build upon an earlier project and posit a qualitative and somewhat whimsical question: Where could I have lived in Portland in the 1930s and have been far enough from the river not to smell the stench (say, five blocks) yet close enough to walk to it (say, up to 1.25 miles) during the rest of the year when it didn’t stink? The darker green areas in the map to the right generally show where this would have been possible.

Read the rest of this post for more information about how I created this map and to see the full map with accompanying images and text. Read the rest of this entry »

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My view of the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group meeting, April 14, 2010

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on April 5, 2010. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

In a previous post, I reported on a meeting I attended of the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group in December 2009. The present post provides some of my thoughts after attending the April 14, 2010, CAG meeting. Read the rest of this entry »

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Some thoughts on the recent EPA critique of contaminant report from the Lower Willamette Group

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Feb. 10, 2010. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary. There are three comments at the original post.]

The information cited below is somewhat reminiscent of the conflict between the City of Portland (CoP) and the Oregon State Sanitary Authority (OSSA) in the late 1950s regarding the city’s inadequate treatment of its sewage. The OSSA (and other abatement advocates such as the local chapters of the Izaak Walton League and the City Club of Portland) were pushing the CoP to implement secondary sewage treatment, because the city’s then-current primary treatment regime was insufficient to ensure adequate dissolved oxygen in and north of city limits. However, CoP leaders (Mayor Schrunk, et al.), balked at making these costly upgrades. So, the OSSA took the city to court and by 1961 forced the city to propose a tax levy and expand their sewage treatment infrastructure.

At least one place where this general pattern breaks down, however, is that pollution related to sewage is significantly less complex to deal with than the current issues with persistent, toxic, and bio-accumulative chemicals.

Ah, makes me wistful for the good ol’ days of floating feces and toilet paper . . .


Scott Learn, “Milestone report on Portland Harbor pollution lowballs risk, EPA says,” Oregonian Jan. 22, 2010, p. B8.

Key excerpts:

“EPA officials say the October report from the Lower Willamette Group prematurely rules out some harbor contaminants as threats to wildlife and overstates uncertainties about the pollution’s risk to human health.”

“The dispute is important: The lower the risks of harbor pollution in Willamette River sediment, the less cleanup work the group’s members and other harbor landowners will have to do.”

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Portland’s Zidell Marine site on the South Waterfront

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Jan. 3, 2010. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

The Oregonian recently ran two articles (here and here) about the Zidell Marine site in Portland’s South Waterfront area. The site is on the west side of the Willamette, bisected by the Ross Island Bridge and abutting the north edge of all those new towers down there.

The issues raised in this and this article involve at least two complex and longstanding themes that reflect society’s changing values. One theme is the conflict that often arises as land uses change over time, pitting long-established uses with more economically lucrative development opportunities. The other is the need to clean up environmental hazards based on previous land uses. It’s here at the pivotal moments of these changes & conflicts that we historians like to poke around a bit, write up some things, and, thereby, try to make some sense of.

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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.

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