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Portland Harbor Community Resiliency Assessment

Portland, Oregon

Featured image for the project, Portland Harbor Community Resiliency Assessment

Photo credit: Cassie Cohen; Water Ceremony at Cathedral Park to heal the Willamette River & Portland Harbor Superfund site

The Portland Harbor Community Resiliency Assessment will be a collaboration between Portland Harbor Community Coalition (PHCC) members and partners, in collaboration with technical researchers, to support the development of a community-based resiliency assessment for communities in the Portland Harbor Superfund Site area. The project will include a climate vulnerability assessment rooted in community knowledge and experiences, technical expert/scientist recommendations regarding remediation plans, and training and advocacy materials for community leaders to continue engagement in the Superfund process. The final product of the project will include written reports for mitigating climate risks experienced by community members in the Superfund area. 



According to a 2017 analysis by the Associated Press, nearly two million people, the majority in low-income communities, live within a mile of 1 of one of the 327 Superfund sites in areas prone to flooding or vulnerable to sea-level rise caused by climate change.1 The Portland Harbor Superfund Site is a 10 mile stretch of the Willamette River contaminated by decades of industrial activity. Contaminants in and along the river pose health risks to people and ecosystems. Simultaneously, the community and river are at risk from climate change impacts that could result in significant increases in pollution from the Superfund site and other industrial sites along the river. Potential future impacts include rising air and water temperatures, increased frequency of intense flooding, diminished snowpack, increased frequency and severity of wildfires, and earthquakes – all of which can be disastrous for the health and safety of the community and survival of fisheries. 

Portland Harbor is an international port of commerce with dozens of industries, including fuel storage and concrete processing, which are major contributors to climate change. The Lower Willamette is also a popular area for recreation, including fishing and boating. The river provides a critical migratory corridor and rearing habitat for salmon, including endangered runs of Steelhead and Chinook. The area also holds great importance to several tribes as a natural and cultural resource. 

The proposed project will be led by representatives of Portland Harbor Community Coalition and Coalition partners. 


The preliminary decisions regarding the cleanup of the Portland Harbor Superfund site are currently being made by agencies and polluters. However, full remediation will take decades and some contamination will be left in place for many years after the planned cleanup work is completed. Additionally, numerous other contaminated sites and industries exist along the Lower Willamette and are subject to their own risks from the changing climate and seismic hazards.  

The Portland Harbor Superfund Site is considered one of the most complicated environmental cleanup sites in the country. Over 100 responsible parties, including local and state governments, are currently engaged in planning the multi-decade process for the design and clean up of the river. Historically, a lack of political power and financial resources have prevented environmental justice communities from meaningful and impactful participation in the process to secure community and ecological health, and community benefits.  

To date, government agencies have taken few actions to include equitable strategies for climate resilience in remediation planning. For example, in 2018, the US EPA evaluated the resilience of Superfund site cleanups in the wake of  hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, many of which are located in vulnerable communities. Of the sites evaluated, 63 experienced flooding in spite of half of those sites having resiliency measures in place.  

A Community Climate Resilience Assessment would help lay the foundation for the development of a shared vision for climate resilience and action in the lower Willamette River. The assessment would support community advocacy, project development, partnerships between community stakeholders, and future visioning for what this stretch of the river could look like. A Community Climate Resilience Assessment would serve as both an organizing tool and guide for building partnerships and developing resilience projects.  



The proposed project includes a community-focused outreach effort to collect and map community stories about climate impacts and the impacts of fossil fuel infrastructure along the river. The outreach effort will also provide information to broaden understanding of tribal and cultural values related to the river and climate change resiliency. With the assistance of scientific partners, the results of the community research will be overlayed with future climate change data (e.g. changes in toxicology or risk based on increasing temperatures) to assess the vulnerabilities in the community. The final results of the research will be shared with the community as an online story map. The project outputs would also be used to plan and host a second series of outreach activities focused on reviewing vulnerability information, prioritizing climate impacts, and developing strategies for increasing community resilience to climate change.  

Support from scientific partners would be incorporated into the community engagement and climate resiliency planning design process. The community has identified a need to understand the linkages between climate change and a) ecotoxicology, b) combined climate risks, and 3) climate resilient and nature based restoration designs for contaminated sites.  

The final phase of the project will be the completion of one or multiple reports documenting community climate vulnerabilities, nature-based resilience strategies, and potential pilot projects for increasing community climate resilience.   

Throughout the project, outreach will be conducted to identify community leaders and facilitate community engagement. Training will then be developed to facilitate understanding of climate impacts and to develop key messages.  


Project Outputs 

Outputs include: 

  • A literature review and maps of a) climate change risks, b) climate impacts on toxicology and 3) nature based remediation strategies; 
  • A story map presenting community climate change information along with future climate risks and vulnerabilities; 
  • Recommendations by a technical expert/scientist for additional sampling, restoration designs, and implications of inaction on climate change; 
  • Individual technical reports summarizing research into specific resiliency topics (e.g. toxicology, seismic stability, remediation strategies and recommendations etc.); 
  • Community workshops to review findings and maps, and to identify community leaders;  
  • Training for community leaders on the superfund process, health and safety, remediation strategies, guidelines for interpreting results, and how to utilize the information in advocating for community identified needs and priorities; and  
  • A final report that synthesizes individual technical reports and community perspectives (data gaps, values and concerns). 



While it is possible that a single scientific partner may be able to take on two of the tasks, the timeline is laid out to reflect the contributions of multiple scientists. The schedule below is based upon activities anticipated to occur at the Portland Harbor Superfund site over the next 12-18 months. A substantial number of technical reports will likely be released by US EPA and Potentially Responsible Parties beginning in early 2022. These reports will include site assessments for sediment and riverbank sampling, and proposed remediation designs for the superfund project area. The proposed project tasks will support community comments and discussions with EPA and partners during this time and beyond.   


  • Planning for community outreach (December 2021); 
  • Literature review and initial data gathering for a) climate change risks, b) climate impacts on toxicology and 3) nature based remediation strategies including analysis and recommendations by a technical expert for additional sampling, restoration designs, and implications of inactions on climate change. (January – February 2022); 
  • Gathering of community climate change information and impacts, (February 2022 – March 2022); 
  • Community workshops to review initial findings and maps (April 2022 – May 2022); 
  • Development of a story map presenting community climate change information along with future climate risks and vulnerabilities (May 2022 – August 2022); 
  • Development of individual technical reports for various resiliency topics (May 2022 – August 2022); 
  • Community workshops to review technical reports and findings and fill in data gaps and  identify community leaders for training (July 2022 – August 2022); 
  • Training workshops for community leaders on the superfund cleanup process to provide information on data interpretation, remediation strategies, guidelines for interpreting study results, and utilization of study data in advocating for community identified needs and priorities (September 2022 – October 2022); 
  • Final reporting (individual or combined reports) addressing the challenges and opportunities posed by climate change impacts on toxicology, combined climate impacts, and climate resilient designs. Reporting will include community needs and values developed with the project team. (November – December 2022); and 
  • Presentation of results and project for community members and leaders (January/February 2023). 

Project Team

Community Leads

Headshot of Cassie Cohen and child

Cassie Cohen, Executive Director – Portland Harbor Community Coalition 

Cassie has a Masters of Social Work who is known for her skills to bring diverse community members together to address social, racial, environmental, and economic justice issues. She has over 15 years experience working in nonprofit, education, and in the public sector. From 2009-2015, she led Groundwork Portland, an environmental justice organization led by and serving communities of color, during which time they formed the Portland Harbor Community Coalition. She and her team were also able to hire and employ 100 young people in a paid environmental jobs training program.  

Alex Lopez Headshot

Alex Lopez, Program Manager – Portland Harbor Community Coalition 

Alex is a state-licensed geologist specializing in the remediation of petroleum and chemical contaminated properties and has a Masters of Social Work. Originally from Houston, Texas, he grew up in the shadows of oil refineries and witnessed the environmental damage caused by the oil and chemical refining industries and its disproportionate impact on low-income and BIPOC communities. Measuring petroleum contamination in the Willamette River, Alex recognized the familiar impacts of industry on Portland Harbor. When not working at his job, Alex enjoys making music and exploring the geology of the northwest. 

Mamelang Memela Headshot

Mamelang Memela, Communications Coordinator – Portland Harbor Community Coalition 

A recent graduate of the Lewis & Clark Environmental Studies program she is interested in expanding accessibility of information about the Portland Harbor and its clean up as well as other issues along the Willamette River. In her spare time she enjoys exploring the PNW through hikes, baking and watching pop culture video essays on Youtube. 

Sarah March Headshot

Sarah March, Masters of Social Work student intern – Portland State University, Portland Harbor Community Coalition 

Sarah is a grad student in the Master of Social Work and Master of Public Health: Health Promotion programs at Portland State University. Her interests center around the ways in which social justice, health, and care for our planet intertwine to create a holistic framework of wellbeing.  

Bella Perea Headshot

Bella Perea, Masters of Social Work Student Intern – Portland State University, Portland, Harbor Community Coalition    

Bella is a grad student in the Master of Social Work program at Portland State University. During her undergraduate education at the University of Colorado Boulder, her studies in environmental and behavioral sciences sparked a passion for environmental justice. Bella has previously worked in mental health settings and aims to intertwine trauma informed care into the environmental justice setting.  


Community Science Fellow

Yusraa Tadj Headshot

Yusraa Tadj is a Project Analyst with the Hawaii Coastal Zone Management Program, where she works on research and project management related to coastal hazards. Previously, she worked on various environmental and urban planning subject matters, including electric vehicles, affordable housing policy, and transit-oriented development in Hawaii, the water supply system in Mexico, and urban flooding in India. She graduated with honours in Community Design from Dalhousie University, and did her masters in Urban Design at the University of British Columbia. In her free time, catch Yusraa watching a true crime documentary, perfecting her spinning hook kick, or tutoring her brother in physics.

Collaborating Organization(s)

Portland Harbor Community Coalition Logo

Portland Harbor Community Coalition: Founded in 2012, PHCC is a collective of groups and individuals elevating the most-impacted, historically or currently, in the billion dollar federal cleanup of the ten mile Willamette River Superfund site in what is now known as the Portland Harbor. Our coalition comprises organizations and individuals representing frontline communities including Native American/ Indigenous, Black/African-Americans, Immigrants, Refugees, People experiencing homelessness and current residents living, working, subsisting or recreating around the Portland Harbor Superfund site. Our mission is to elevate the voices of communities most impacted by pollution in the Portland Harbor Superfund site to ensure that impacted communities benefit from and lead the cleanup, restoration, and redevelopment of the harbor. We are a collective of organizations and individuals. 


Calm Waters Group Logo

Calm Waters Groupmission is based on the core concept that to make progress, communities and community based organizations need to have the training and background to actively engage in, and affect processes that impact  their community – and that these communities have the knowledge and experience needed to make change. Believing the most effective way to make change is to support the organizations already making the change through technical assistance,  scientific analysis, engagement support, and strategic planning. CWG works with nonprofits, large and small, governments and tribes, with experience spanning across a number of regions, including the  Mid-Atlantic, Southeast, Western, and Midwestern U.S and international  experience in Costa Rica, Philippines, and Africa.