NERA Contributes to a Sustainability Evaluation of a Major US Superfund Site

The Situation

The Portland Harbor Superfund Site has been designated by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as one of the “mega-sediment sites” in the United States. Comprising about 10 miles of the Willamette River running through the heart of Portland, Oregon, the Portland Harbor site has been the subject of EPA investigation for decades, culminating in a June 2016 EPA Feasibility Study (FS) that identified nine remedial alternatives with costs (undiscounted) of up to nearly $9 billion and construction durations of potentially more than 19 years.

NERA's Role

NERA Senior Vice President Dr. David Harrison, Co-Chair of NERA’s Environmental Economics Practice, and Analyst Conor Coughlin, alongside co-authors from AECOM Technology Services and SEA Environmental Decisions, prepared a yearlong, multidisciplinary “sustainability evaluation” for the Portland Harbor Sustainability Project (PHSP). The PHSP study evaluated the EPA’s remedial alternatives on the basis of environmental, economic, and social factors—the three “pillars” of a sustainability analysis—as recommended by the National Research Council (NRC) for Superfund decision-making. The economic pillar—for which Dr. Harrison and Mr. Coughlin had responsibility—included consideration of cost-effectiveness, benefit-cost analysis, and economic impact evaluations of the EPA remedial alternatives.

NERA separately prepared a detailed report evaluating the impacts of the EPA’s remedial alternatives on economic activity in the Portland metropolitan area, a major concern of many stakeholders. Two prior studies yielded contradicting results, with one finding positive impacts (based on remediation expenditures), and the other finding negative impacts (based on financing considerations). The NERA team used detailed expenditure and financing information on the EPA alternatives as inputs to a state-of-the-art regional economic model—the Regional Economic Models, Inc. (REMI) Policy Insight Plus Model (PI+)—to develop estimates of the net economic impacts of the EPA’s alternatives over 31 years, taking into account both positive and negative effects. The study found that (a) all EPA remedial alternatives would result in net job losses and other negative impacts to the Portland regional economy; (b) the negative impacts would be substantially greater for the more expensive EPA alternatives; and (c) the size of the negative impacts would depend substantially on the specifics of remediation financing.

The Result

The final PHSP study was submitted to the EPA in September 2016 as part of public comments on the EPA FS remedial alternatives, a submission that included detailed reports for all three “pillars” of the study as well as an executive summary. Earlier versions of the study had been presented to numerous stakeholder groups in Portland and had been the subject of various external reviews. In addition, the innovative multidisciplinary framework developed by the PHSP—and the application to the Portland Harbor Superfund Site—is being presented at various conferences and workshops as a significant step forward in developing an interdisciplinary sustainability framework that can be used as a tool to inform environmental decision-making for complex sediment remedies.