Friday, November 6, 2009

Willamette River Portland Harbor Superfund Site

I get two common replies when I tell people that I recently completed my M.A. thesis on the topic of water pollution abatement efforts within the Willamette watershed from the 1920s into the early 1960s.

One reply is: "I didn't think people were trying to do anything about the issue until the late 1960s."

Another reply I get is: "Wow, the river is still really filthy."

The short answers to these sentiments are, in turn: "Yes, they did, actually," and "Yes, it is, actually." Depending upon how interested the person looks after one of these replies, I may then start to give them details of my findings. It's a complex story that's hard to tell in a few words, but I try.

This is the first of many posts on the topic of Willamette River pollution, and it's in response to the online comments from an October 25 article in the Oregonian on the topic of the Superfund Site in Portland's harbor.

The reader comments to this article give me both frustration and satisfaction: I'm frustrated that so many people seem to have such a tenuous grip on history, complexity, and historical complexity; I'm satisfied in the realization that my job as a historian is secure, at least in terms of society's need for some of its members to commit themselves to the task of representing history in clear, concise, inclusive, and accurate ways. I consider this a kind of job security.*

A few notable reader comments:

-- "Before and during WWII we were not sensitive at all towards the environment [italics mine]"

Well, no. Many people were sensitive to a whole range of environmental concerns. John Reiger shows that sports fishers were lobbying for clean streams in the mid-nineteenth century, and David Stradling writes about the important role that women played in abating industrial air pollution from the 1870s, to name just two examples. Additionally, my thesis, "Working for the 'Working River': Willamette River Pollution, 1926-1962," details the efforts of a diverse array of clean streams advocates in Oregon well before WWII.

-- "If the environment is reason enough to to shut down commerce in the timber country and farming in the Klamath Basin, then it's damn sure reason enough to shut down commerce to save the rivers."

This is over-simplified. Restrictions on logging and water use are often linked to specific environmental consequences--i.e., endangered species such as the spotted owl and the sucker fish. However, these consequences are also intimately linked to equity considerations among the people and groups involved, as well as to scientific data that are constantly being revised and refined.

-- "$74 million and years beyond the original schedule to figure out that the contamination and cleanup methods are just like other industrial cleanup sites? Nice job reinventing the wheel, guys!"

Without seeing the invoices that detail expenditures for the research conducted and based upon my research into the many water quality studies conducted between 1926 and 1962, my reply to this is that water pollution is a complex issue in and of itself. It's contingent upon pollutant concentrations, dispersal patterns, persistence, etc. Further, having to determine exactly where highly polluted river banks and river beds are, in relation to property lines, carries with it important financial repercussions.

-- ". . . we all know that metro has clean green latte sippers on their bikes and they have nothing to do with pollution, it is all the fault of rural Oregon not the businesses of the valley."

That quote is just spiteful.

* This is not to be confused with the other kind of job security--the ability to earn a living wage and benefits consistently, but that's for another day.


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