The photos of Bradford Island look so beautiful. Nestled in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area near Bonneville Dam, the island is a living postcard for motorists driving along nearby Interstate 84.
But behind the trees lurks an old landfill once full of environmental hazards. So it was welcome news last week when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nominated Bradford Island to the federal Superfund National Priorities List. Assuming the island makes the list, it will be prioritized for funding to clean up the toxins that have riddled the landfill and leached into the Columbia River.
For decades, heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, used in the construction and operation of Bonneville Dam were disposed of in the landfill by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The landfill was decommissioned in 1982. But PCBs, which have been linked to cancer and other health problems in humans, have been detected in local fish and shellfish, prompting warnings not to eat them as long ago as 2013.
Both the impact on Columbia River fish – which are still important food sources to tribal members today – and the site’s location in the national scenic area ought to make listing Bradford Island as a Superfund site a priority.
“This is great news for protection of the Columbia River,” Laura Watson, director of the Washington State Department of Ecology, said last week after the EPA’s announcement. “The Columbia is a cherished resource for the residents of Washington and Oregon, and the people of the Yakama Nation. We are hopeful that this highly contaminated site will finally get the resources it needs to ensure a cleaner river with healthier salmon.”
To the Corps’ credit, some cleanup of the site has already been done. Old electrical equipment, which used oil containing PCBs, has been removed, and some contaminated soil has been removed or treated. But the work that remains, including cleaning sediment in the river, will be difficult and expensive. The funding power behind the Superfund designation will help speed this cleanup.
Credit also goes to Native American tribes for applying pressure to clean up their traditional fishing grounds. The Yakama Nation in particular has spent years petitioning the federal government to list Bradford Island as a Superfund site. In 2019, Washington and Oregon joined that effort.
Cleanup has already been completed at a number of Superfund sites in Southwest Washington, including the Alcoa Vancouver smelter, Bonneville Power Administration Ross Complex in Hazel Dell, Frontier Hard Chrome in Vancouver, Toftdahl Drums in Brush Prairie and the Hamilton Island landfill in North Bonneville. Two Vancouver municipal water stations were designated as Superfund priority list sites and cleaned up in the 1990s after a chemical formerly used in dry cleaning was found in the well water.
A public comment period is the next step before Bradford Island can be eligible for the Superfund listing. After the comment period closes on Nov. 8, the EPA will make its formal decision.
Assuming the EPA decides to list Bradford Island, the Corps of Engineers will still be the lead agency in charge of the cleanup, following a plan that will be developed. But the EPA will have oversight to ensure the work is completed.
It’s encouraging to think that in a few years, Bradford Island and the Columbia River that surrounds it could be as clean and beautiful as they look from a distance.