In Our View: Environmental Oversight

Cleanup of contaminated Ridgefield site serves as cautionary tale

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The conclusion of a lengthy environmental cleanup project in Ridgefield serves not only as a cause for celebration but as a cautionary tale. It points out the importance of environmental oversight, lest the public be left holding the bag for costly and dangerous contamination in the future.

A 41-acre site owned by the Port of Ridgefield has been cleared for development — a mere 20 years after Pacific Wood Treating declared bankruptcy and abandoned the site. The cleanup that ensued involved the removal of about 25,000 gallons of liquid contamination and 1.5 million pounds of toxic sludge — a state-funded project that cost about $70 million. Finally, on Oct. 23, a consent decree was signed by the Port of Ridgefield, the city of Ridgefield, and the state Department of Ecology, noting the completion of the cleanup on the waterfront property.

That is good news for the future of Ridgefield. The long-term vision is for a mixed-use development known as Millers’ Landing that would include restaurants, retailers, office space and, possibly, a boutique hotel. All of that remains to be seen, but the important point is that the city now has options for developing the property on Lake River, a tributary of the Columbia River.

As with many waterfronts at the time of the Industrial Revolution, Ridgefield’s most valuable recreational resource was turned over to heavy industry. What once was viewed as crucial to industrial concerns — a consistent water source — now is considered an opportunity for development that will attract consumers. Those competing philosophies can be viewed in Portland, where the west side of the Willamette River underwent renovation some 35 years ago, while the east side remains shut off from most public access by Interstate 5 and blocks of light-industrial use.

For its part, Vancouver is moving toward development at its former Boise Cascade site, joining the parade of cities that realize waterfronts these days are better suited as places for the public to enjoy the scenery, rather than for belching smokestacks.

Ridgefield’s experience, meanwhile, can serve as a case study for environmental vigilance. While Pacific Wood Treating benefited the city for decades, the question at this point is whether the cost was worth it. And that’s not the only location in which such a question must be asked. The state’s list of hazardous sites, some more problematic than others, includes 69 places in Clark County. Several of those are related to Camp Bonneville, a former U.S. Army firing range left littered with munitions, lead and other pollutants. Several others are at former dry-cleaning operations, which in the past would use harmful chemicals without the current strict disposal regulations.

While these cleanup efforts will continue to be an issue for decades and decades, modern environmental awareness ideally will prevent new sites from being added to the cleanup list. Still, vigilance is necessary. One example is at the Port of Vancouver, which has approved a proposal to allow Tesoro Corp. and Savage Companies to build an oil terminal and transport thousands of gallons of crude by train down the Columbia River Gorge and through Vancouver. As the proposal moves forward in the state’s approval process, we urge regulators to ensure that proper safety measures are in place and are enforced, and we urge the establishment of a fund the company would use for potential cleanup.

The same admonitions should apply to any large industrial endeavors in the region. While economic development and growth is crucial to the area, as Ridgefield has learned, doing so without the proper oversight can be costly down the road.