McCormick & Baxter site has sale agreement

Fifty years ago the McCormick and Baxter creosote plant on the St. Johns waterfront was placed on the National Priority List due to intense contamination. The site is large at 41 acres and has extensive riverfront. It’s located just south of the Willamette Cove and railroad bridge. When clean up was required by the EPA, the company owner, Charlie McCormick, declared bankruptcy. The property was then declared an “orphan site” and its cleanup cost was passed on to the public. The plant stopped operating in 1991.

McCormick Baxter site seen from above
McCormick Baxter site seen from above. Photo by B. Quinn.

After the plant shut down, the soils, groundwater, and river sediment were so infused with contaminants, that when a local grandfather allowed his grandchildren to play on what looked like a pleasantly, deserted beach, the kids ended up with chemical burns on their bare feet and legs after wading in the river.

The property’s “cleanup” was completed in 2005 by laying several feet of clean sand and rock over the land and creating a barrier on the riverfront to keep contamination from leaking into the Willamette River. It will have to be carefully monitored in perpetuity.

Due to a legal clause in the process, the landowner retains the title to the property even if it is an orphan site. As the holder of the title, McCormick can sell the property to whomever he chooses although it must be approved by DEQ as representative of the public. It was announced in late April that McCormick has entered into a sales agreement with a group called the Portland Botanical Gardens.

McCormick and Baxter site looking north at the railroad bridge
McCormick and Baxter beach looking north at the railroad bridge. Photo by Tom Karwaki.
McCormick and Baxter map
McCormick and Baxter site location in St. Johns

The Yakama Nation along with the other community representatives actively working with EPA and DEQ on the Willamette Superfund, would like to see a public process in the sale of the property; they feel the site should be used for some community and natural benefit due to the fact that the public has invested heavily in its cleanup, and unbuilt waterfront is rare on the Lower Willamette River. They cite the fact that a greenway adjacent to the river is desperately needed to help cool it, and provide shade and habitat for river-dependent animals especially several endangered species.

Michael Pouncil, chair of the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group, noted that, “Portland Botanical Gardens (PBG) has to show that there are community and Tribal inputs regarding McCormick and Baxter (M&B). So far, M&B’s community engagement has been a “one and done”—they have not, to my knowledge, shown a consistent engagement with adjacent neighbors, neighborhood associations or community groups. A one-time ‘meet and greet’ does not equate to community engagement.”

View from the McCormick and Baxter site
View of river from the McCormick and Baxter site. Photo by Tom Karwaki.