Many people have asked me how I intend to cover the Peter Gearin dredging story in this issue of Coast River Business Journal. Quite simply I don't, with the exception of here, in my editorial space.
In the spirit of full disclosure, Gearin is my "significant other." For those who don't know, he recently pleaded guilty to a felony charge for a single violation of the federal Clean Water Act that occurred during the 2005 dredge season; he was the Port of Astoria's executive director at the time. In entering a guilty plea, he accepted full responsibility for the violation.
Under time constraints and duress, a decision was made to allow the release of water from a dredge settling-pond before it was tested for contaminants. This decision was made because the inability to complete dredging would seriously compromise port tenant and port operations. The cruise ship business was one of the port operations in jeopardy.
The pre-permit presence of the now-banned pesticide DDT in a port slip generated the requirement for the more costly and time consuming upland disposal of the port's dredge materials.
From a CRBJ perspective, the legal fallout of this story doesn't belong in our "beat" it isn't about business, real estate or construction it's about judicial proceedings. Fortunately The Oregonian ran an accurate, balanced and professionally written article on the subject so the correct story has been told.
There is, however, an aspect of this issue that should be of concern to business owners and taxpayers.
The pollution found in lower Columbia River waters is comprised primarily of DDT, PCB's and mercury.
These contaminants were not and are not typically generated in the lower river. These pollutants come primarily from large upriver farms and industrial sites. The political and financial clout wielded by the perpetrators is far greater than that of any of our lower river ports or their elected or hired officials.
For example, the EPA has been criticized for allowing a concrete plant in Eastern Oregon to spew forth the second largest amount of airborne mercury in the nation each year. This mercury lands in streams and rivers and flows into the Lower Columbia River. Here water and tidal flow patterns trap these pollutants in our estuaries, bays, tidal pools and port and other water-related facilities.
After much public outcry, the concrete plant owners, to their credit, recently volunteered to take action to reduce the plant's mercury emissions in the future. (Not an EPA or DEQ mandate, in other words).
Yet those same agencies are using the Port of Astoria as an example of their exemplary work in protecting the health of our river system, even though contamination as a result of the port's water outflow could not be confirmed.
In The Oregonian article, the EPA's lead Seattle agent, Mark Measer, said the goal of the EPA in the Gearin case is "deterrence" to other individuals. It's interesting the EPA isn't pursuing its deterrence goal on the upriver polluters.
Additionally the permitting process is convoluted and cumbersome. No fewer than five state and federal agencies with differing standards must simultaneously issue approval before the Corps of Engineers will issue dredge permits. It can take many months, even years, to secure the coveted permitting, especially if contaminants have been found during pre-testing.
Add to it that the in-water work period allowed is very brief Nov. 1 to the last day in February and even shorter if permits are delayed. And none of the government agencies involved have a reputation for moving quickly.
The financial and emotional stress lower river port representatives past, current and future endure in dealing with pollution created upriver is untenable.
With the problems created by upriver pollution and the dysfunctional permitting process, it seems grossly unfair that lower river port staff and officials are assigned the task of making such decisions under duress. With one decision an entire port might be shut down, with another the decision-maker's life is forever altered.
Lower river ports need a solution to the burden of upriver pollution landing in their marinas and slips. Presently it is a no-win situation. It is imperative to the future economic health of the Port of Astoria and other lower river ports that a solution be found.