I've talked about Portland before, America's whitest major city by a mile with a 72% white populace and one of the most segregated cities in America. Now the city is trying to fix its long history of racism by starting with environmental justice and cleaning up the badly polluted Willamette River.
When Wilma Alcock was young, she fished the Willamette River nearly every weekend. Her favorite spot was Mock’s Bottom—a crescent of land that lies at the base of the steep bluffs along Willamette Boulevard. It has since been swallowed up by the Swan Island Industrial Park, but back then it was just marshy riverbank.
On warm summer evenings and crisp fall days, Alcock clambered down to the water to dip her line in the lazy current. She caught bluegills, ring-tail perch, and crappie—a tasty black and white speckled sunfish. “We used to catch them plentiful,” Alcock recalls. Now seventy-nine and retired after a career in nursing and childcare, she has an infectious laugh, short white hair, and smooth skin that belies her age.
Alcock grew up fishing, like many people of her generation in Portland’s African American community. She learned from her father, who always called her Bill. “You know, Wilma, William, Bill,” she explains. She got a cane pole at age eight and baited her first worm not long after. That’s when, she says, the “first little bit of callousness” came into her life. She knew how to cast by ten and has fished ever since.
But Alcock stopped fishing the Willamette in the 1970s. Part of the reason was that she was busy raising her four children. But it was also because the river had become so polluted that her catch was visibly unhealthy. “You didn’t need nobody to tell you not to eat the fish,” Alcock says.
Signs warning against eating fish from the Willamette eventually went up in 2004, four years after the Environmental Protection Agency declared the Portland Harbor a federal Superfund site—a ten-mile reach from the Broadway Bridge to Sauvie Island. While salmon and other migratory fish are safe to eat, the Oregon Health Authority advises healthy adults to eat a maximum of one meal of resident fish per month. For children and pregnant or nursing women, that number is zero.
The EPA has now released a plan to clean up the river after sixteen years of environmental studies. Three million cubic yards of contaminated sediments will be dredged from the river and more will be either removed from the banks or sealed in place. The cleanup will take thirteen years and cost polluters at least a billion dollars, but it will make the fish safer to eat and hasten the recovery of the river’s ecosystem.
Environmental justice advocates also see the cleanup effort as an opportunity to do right by those who have suffered the most from the pollution. Although the contamination has affected everyone who uses the Willamette, the impacts have fallen disproportionately on those who tend to fish the most: tribal members, people of color, low-income residents, and those from other marginalized groups who rely on the river for food.
Organizations like the Portland Harbor Community Coalition, an alliance of individuals and associations representing Native American, African American, immigrant, refugee, and homeless communities, are trying to ensure that people from impacted groups get access to jobs associated with the billion-dollar project. They also want community members to have a role in monitoring progress and deciding how riverfront real estate should be used after it’s restored.
“We have a chance to actually do something different here,” says Donovan Smith, an African American artist and journalist who serves as PHCC’s media coordinator. (Smith is also a contributor to Oregon Humanities' This Land project.)
Many in Portland’s Black community say the cleanup offers a way to reclaim a connection to the Willamette River. That connection began with World War II shipyards and continued over decades spent living along the water and fishing. But the bond suffered as pollution made the fish unsafe and economic changes pushed many African Americans out of neighborhoods near the river. Many say the connection has been lost.
“It all kind of just blends together with all the displacement, the gentrification,” says Alcock, a PHCC member with deep ties to the river. “All of it is just one big old ball.”
It's a start, and there are plenty of old wounds in Portland and in Oregon in general, a state founded by white supremacists and a city that had racial exclusion laws worse than any Jim Crow Southern state.
But it's a start. Portland still has a long, long way to go.