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Hire Diverse and Local

Advocates plead for river cleanup jobs

Zachary Senn | 3/21/2017, 4:46 p.m.
As federal, state, and local governmental entities begin an estimated $1 billion clean up of Portland’s polluted harbor, local community ...
Rahsaan Muhammad, Kirk Fatland and Cassie Cohen of the Portland Harbor Community Coalition are working to make sure people from the local community, especially minority and disadvantaged populations, are hired as part of a $1 billion Superfund cleanup of the Willamette River Harbor in Portland. Zachary Senn

As federal, state, and local governmental entities begin an estimated $1 billion clean up of Portland’s polluted harbor, local community members are pushing to have the Superfund revitalization work completed by a local and diverse workforce.

Individuals and organizations represented by the Portland Harbor Community Coalition say it is only right for Portland residents who been adversely affected by the harbor’s contamination to benefit from the immense economic investment necessitated by the cleanup.

The coalition represents a diverse array of populations with historical and contemporary presences in Portland and the metro area, including Native American, black, and immigrant communities.

The group was formed in 2012 in response to a massive public relations campaign by the Lower Willamette Group, formerly known as the Portland Harbor Partnership, a group representing several of the entities and corporations that the federal Environmental Protection Agency has listed as potentially responsible parties for the decades-old pollution, including the Union Pacific Railroad, Arkema, the city of Portland and Phillips 66.

“Polluter groups were basically taking the lead on all the content that’s out there,” Portland Harbor Community Coalition representative Cassie Cohen said.

She said it was important for the environmental justice community to insert the voices of the most affected communities into ongoing decisions regarding the harbor restoration’s implementation, especially for people of color who have been victims of the pollution’s negative effects to become recipients of the benefits of the economic stimulus that the revitalization will create.

Rahsaan Muhammad, a member of the Portland Harbor Community Coalition, says that he also is hoping to see responsible, community-led stewardship of the revitalized river and land once the cleanup is complete.

Wilma Alcock, a 79-year-old Portland native, says that she grew up eating fish caught in what is now the Portland Harbor Superfund site.

“The fish were edible at one time, and now they’re not,” she said, explaining that many in the community still rely on the river as a means of supplementing their diet. “I really am concerned that people are going to get sick that continue to fish there.”

She is wary of the EPA’s practice of turning to out-of-state contractors to facilitate the rehabilitation at other Superfund sites, employers who rely on their own crews that travel with them from job to job.

“Sometimes contractors come in with their own people, and the local people don’t get any jobs,” says Alcock. “They don’t care about investing in the local community.”

The coalition sees the potential cleanup jobs as most valuable to young people in our historically disadvantaged communities who would gain from learning lifelong skills and receiving invaluable job training.

Cohen hopes that by involving state and local agencies with a push to hire locally, the overall economic benefit of the EPA’s investment in Portland will be more substantial.

Despite Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Nick Fish affirming the city’s commitment to including local laborers in the cleanup, Cohen says that the city, in recent history, has been reluctant to enter into any formal community benefit agreement outlining hiring goals.