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Ross Island Still Has Problems

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The pronouncement from Mayor Tom Potter's office came in all caps: "INITIAL ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT OF ROSS ISLAND SHOWS POSITIVE RESULTS."

In other words, a study was released showing that the part of Ross Island that could soon become city property isn't the environmental wasteland that many people thought it was. That fear—that the city could be on the hook for ecological damage left by the island's current owner, Ross Island Sand and Gravel (RISG)—had been part of the reason that talks between RISG owner Bob Pamplin (who also owns the Portland Tribune) and the city had dragged on, unsuccessfully, for years.

The study, by GRI Geotechnical and Environmental Consultants, showed that the 45 to 60 acres of soon-to-be donated land is relatively clean. But before environmentalists break out their bottles of organic champagne, the city will need to come to grips with the host of problems still lingering in the Ross Island area.

Mike Houck, director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute, and one of the state's lead environmentalists, says he wasn't surprised by the GRI report. "As I told everyone a year ago," he says, "it was pretty inconceivable that any toxics or other bad things would be found on a piece of the island that had never been 'worked'" by the gravel company.

There's still the not-insignificant problem of the rest of the island, and the adjoining Hardtack Island, both of which were mined extensively—and nearly decimated—by RISG for decades.

Maybe more of a concern for enviros and the city, though, is what lies in the Ross Island lagoon. In 1992, the Port of Portland began burying contaminated dredge material, which it scooped out of the Willamette River, in contained "cells" in the lagoon, about 30 feet below the water surface. Unfortunately, RISG was still mining the area, and it didn't take long before a mining shovel breeched one of the cells, releasing contaminated material into the lagoon. Both the Port of Portland and RISG have paid for assessments and cleanup, but there are no plans to remove the contaminated dredge materials from the lagoon.

Perhaps for the best, public access to the island will be limited.

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