Pressure forces DEQ to address Toxins at Cathedral Park (September 2023)

Several years ago, Alex Lopez, a local activist working on the superfund cleanup, happened to read an agency report in depth and found that DEQ had discovered high concentrations of PCBs in a certain location in Cathedral Park while testing for sources of river contaminants. The concentration was well above what is considered safe for human exposure. The agency felt the PCBs were too far away from the river to be an upland source. They simply noted their location and the issue was dropped.

Lopez, along with other river activists were shocked to learn that such high levels of the toxic chemical were noted but not brought to the public’s attention. They recognized that Cathedral Park is a popular place for residents of all ages and that it’s one of the few places where residents have access to the Willamette River. 

Cathedral Park PCB map
Concentration of PCBs measured by DEQ sampling

PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are a highly dangerous set of forever chemicals that are especially dangerous to youngsters since they mimic human growth hormones and can interfere with the growth process. They can change genes and are believed to be cancer-causing. There is no known safe exposure. 

PCBs were banned in the 1970s when it was discovered that they don’t break down over time and consistently leak into the environment. PCB contamination in Willamette River sediments is the main reason the Superfund clean up was triggered in 2000.

Only with the outcry from Lopez and other activists did DEQ representatives finally agree to add signage and undertake sampling at Cathedral Park near the Peninsula Iron Works building at N. Crawford St. and N. Alta Ave. 

The areas most affected by high PCB contamination are immediately surrounding Peninsula Iron Works (see map on pg. 1), particularly the rail tracks adjacent to the building, soil between the building and tracks, and the soil on the other side of the tracks. 

DEQ advises:

• staying on the paved path when crossing the railroad

• Not walking on or along the rail tracks

• Avoiding bare soil along the rail tracks

It is not clear where the PCB contamination is coming from although DEQ says it appears to follow a rain run-off pattern surrounding the Peninsula Iron Works building.

DEQ has said in meetings that there is no danger to humans or dogs even though they’ve found PCB concentrations above what EPA considers safe levels. When asked if dogs in the off-leash area are safe the response was “It takes 20 years for disease to develop and dogs don’t usually live that long.”

More recent sampling of the ground between the rail tracks and riverfront has revealed it is not affected by PCBs. Sampling in the most affected areas is ongoing to locate exact areas of concentration. 

DEQ has stated that clean up is the eventual goal although in the interim they are working with Parks to place mulch over contaminated soil in the affected areas to limit exposure to dust.