Astoria is justifiably proud of its industrial heritage. Canneries and an intricate network of related support businesses once crowded the waterfront during the salmon equivalent of a gold rush. This evolved for a time in the mid-20th century into a more diversified maritime economy sparked by World War II.
Now, much of the shoreline has morphed again, away from heavy industry toward hospitality. Another large hotel was announced last week.
This transition and the simple passage of time are bringing to light an unpleasant aftertaste of the industrial boom: An oily sheen on some adjacent waters from old tanks, pipes and tainted sediments. Sorting this out is worth the effort.
A dilapidated pier next to Cannery Pier Hotel collapsed in January and damaged a tank underneath filled with oil once used to fire Union Fishermen’s Cooperative Packing Co.’s retorts. Cleanup costs quickly escalated to $1 million. In a related development, last week we reported the state Department of Environmental Quality is nearing a decision on the best way to clean up historical petroleum pollution at the Port of Astoria’s central waterfront near the hotel’s site, which the Port owned until 1999. Farther away, in Jeffers Garden on the Lewis and Clark River, Astoria Marine Construction Co. could be doomed by a costly, state-mandated cleanup of legacy contamination.
Until at least the 1970s, policies regarding buried petroleum toxins could be best described as “out of sight, out of mind.” There was a fuzzy awareness that oil-handling practices by earlier operators had been sloppy at best and, at times, deliberately intended to minimize costs at the expense of neighbors and the estuarine environment. Stricter laws designed to protect people, fish and animals gradually brought such negligence to an end.
Nowadays in Clatsop County, there’s a consensus that pollution control is a worthwhile goal in its own right, along with awareness that prosperity is closely linked to a reputation for stewardship of our land and waters. We definitely don’t want to become known as the pretty place that allows gunky old oil to seep into the waters where salmon swim.
Dealing with all this is easy to encourage but harder to pay for. Current property owners, Port officials and possibly lenders and insurers are caught up in mending the errors of bygone polluters.
In passing a resolution to cooperate in the Cannery Pier Hotel cleanup, the Port of Astoria Commission took a valuable leadership position in aiding with widespread local waterfront pollution. “This is an opportunity for our organization, through the commission, to proclaim support for our neighbors when our neighbors are in distress,” Port Executive Director Jim Knight said. “This is our opportunity to proclaim our ability to come and help manage the process when identifying who are the responsible parties, and what will ultimately be their fair share, with the guidance and support of the Coast Guard.”
The Clatsop County Board of Commissioners, the Astoria City Council and state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, also all appear to recognize the importance of this issue and the need for some degree of unity in addressing it.
Although it has many of its own pressing matters to deal with beyond oil contamination, it’s possible the Port could play a useful and even profitable role in acting as lead agency for a consortium working toward solutions on behalf of Astoria. This would mark an historic and symbolic turnaround from its own troubles a dozen years ago, when a previous Port manager got into a legal tangle with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for mishandling dredged materials containing the now-banned pesticide DDT. Then as now, the Port and its personnel were blameless when it came to depositing the pollution in the first place.
Fixing environmental sins of the past requires careful thought, expert guidance and as much outside funding as we can wrangle. A key asset for the entire Pacific Northwest, the Columbia River shoreline deserves and requires high-priority treatment for lingering ailments that trace their origins to times when Astoria helped feed and defend the nation.