Willamette Cove: A Green Space That is a Toxic Place

by Samantha Hernandez, CSE Climate Justice Intern

Willamette Cove. Credit: Oregonlive.com

Portland is well known for its countless green spaces all over the city. The abundance of public parks that populate Portland, including Forest Park, one of the largest urban forests in the country, demonstrates the city’s commitment to environmental conservation. However, not very far from the 5,000 acre Forest Park is Willamette Cove, a beautiful inlet with a tranquil beach. The beach is perfect for a refreshing swim on a hot day or enjoying a beachside picnic.

But there’s a catch: If you visit Willamette Cove, you are considered a trespasser. Signs stating “No public access” are posted on trees along the site’s trail warning residents “health hazards exist,” in bold, black letters. In tiny font below the big letters, you can read the reason why: Willamette Cove is closed “due to high levels of dioxin and metals found in the soil and river sediment from past contamination, and physical hazards in and near the water.” 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), dioxin is a highly toxic pollutant that can cause a multitude of health problems including cancer, reproductive issues, developmental issues, and harm to the immune system. The presence of toxins and metals can be traced all the way back to World War II, when the area became a hub for docks to assemble war ships and tanks. The levels of contamination are so high that the location is designated as part of a Superfund site, specifically, the “Portland Harbor Superfund site.” 

A Superfund site is classified as a location that is highly contaminated because hazardous waste has been dumped in the area. The EPA is given authority to clean up these sites. The proposed clean-up method for the Willamette Cove would only remove the “hot spots” of contamination, leaving 23,000 cubic yards of toxic soil–an area the size of nine olympic-sized pools. The remaining waste would simply be covered by clean sand or collected in a structure with layers of gravel, cobble, and topsoil. What’s missing from this plan is any long termprioritization of human and ecological well-being.

In spite of the hazards, surrounding community members still visit Willamette Cove. You can occasionally witness a neighbor taking their dog on a walk or a bike rider speedinCredit: Oregonhikers.orgg on the trail, even a couple of boats floating idly on the water. It is important for this site to be thoroughly cleaned up because of its contamination, but also because of how important it is to local residents who are exposed to these toxins on a daily basis. The cove is a place for recreation, community gathering, and consolation during these very demanding and taxing times.

Moreover, there is a growing concern about toxic soil and how it would create additional vulnerabilities for the surrounding population as  climate change accelerates. The Cascadia earthquake, which occurs on average every 250 years, and last occurred in 1700,  is one such vulnerability that calls for immediate action. In the event of a majorquake of 8.0 or more, it is possible that the sediment capping meant to cover the contaminated soil could crack or leak. This recontamination would be further exacerbated by Oregon’s Critical Energy Infrastructure (CEI) Hub, which is just across the Willamette Cove. The CEI Hub holds approximately 90% of the fuel used to power the entire state of Oregon and the expected 9.0 magnitude shaking could cause the largest oil spill in the world, and threaten people living close to the CEI hub.

A more immediate and robust clean up is needed for both the environment and the community. The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is currently seeking input from the public on the proposed cleanup plan. Please submit a public comment using the information provided below, urging DEQ to expedite the cleanup process and prioritize the health and wellbeing of the local community and the environment by August 31st.

Please send your comments to: WillCoveUpland@deq.state.or.us

To send a letter, please write to the following address:

Erin McDonnell

700 NE Multnomah St., Suite 600

Portland, OR 97232

Link for more information on Willamette Cove: 



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