When Tom McCall’s landmark documentary “Pollution in Paradise” released in 1962, it forced the public to confront pollution in the Willamette River. The documentary included extended footage of a paper mill along the river bank dumping thousands of gallons of waste into the water.
Raw sewage spilled into the Portland Harbor and myriad of other striking visuals depicted the Willamette as something less grand than the mythical beauty which many in Oregon held it to be.
McCall said that runoff from the mills “churns at river’s bottom, forming into rafts that rise to the surface in sluggish, foul smelling masses of filth.”
Just four years later, on the back of the river cleanup campaign his activism helped to spur, McCall was elected Governor. The legacy of his time in office is one of environmental consciousness, reverence for Oregon’s natural qualities and the perceived end of the soiling of Willamette River.
Historian James Hillegas-Elting, however, sees McCall’s time in office as merely one element of a decades-long, ongoing effort to clean up the river, which involves countless individuals and groups working in tandem.
Hillegas-Elting hosted a talk on campus April 22 about the history of river cleanup efforts from the 1920s to the 1970s. The talk drew from his 2018 book “Speaking for the River,” and he argued that McCall’s mythical status as the man who ended the problem is an oversimplification of a complex, ongoing history.
Combating the mythologized narrative, he talked about the history that “Speaking for the River” covers, the story of a long cleanup effort comprised of many diverse groups.
Although Hillegas-Elting’s book ends in 1970, the story of the river does not. Oregon has maintained a reputation as an environmentally conscious state, although Hillegas-Elting argues that the state of the Willamette River has been a mark against Oregon for decades.
“Willamette River water pollution has not gone away — the problem has, in fact, gotten much more complex,” said Hillegas-Elting. “[McCall] came at the end of a 40-some odd year period of advocacy, and what he ended up doing was helped to take care of the low hanging fruit.”
The “low hanging fruit” he refers to is reducing toxic runoff from point sources — localized and stationary pollution sources. McCall’s documentary included striking shots of mills pouring thousands of gallons of waste into the river.
“Since the late 60s, in particularly the early 70s and beyond, the focus has been much more on non point sources,” Hillegas-Elting said, “which include agricultural runoff, particulate matter falling from the sky as well as a range of other chemicals and toxic substances that broader scientific communities, prior to the 60s, were not that aware of.”
An EPA document that outlines current river cleanup efforts on the Willamette confirms that today’s interpretation of the problem is more nuanced: The document’s section on contaminant sources has more than two dozen entries, mostly focused on “sediments” in the water.
Hillegas-Elting said that sediment can be comprised of a wide range of things, but the term broadly refers to particulate matter in the river that then settles into the soil.
“When the water slows down, that [particulate matter] will start to drop out of suspension and become the sediment,” Hillegas-Elting said. “Over the years it just builds up.”
Hillegas-Elting added that as fish live and eat food from contaminated water, they bring the contaminant further up the food chain into humans.
“If humans eat those materials as a salmon, trout, or whatever aquatic organisms, and then they also ingest a higher level of mercury, lead, you know, those kinds of things,” he said.
Though these problems are not new, Hillegas-Elting said the scientific knowledge to understand them didn’t exist in the midst of more pointed cleanup efforts like that of the 60’s and 70’s.
“Even if they had been able to find the fish, the scientific techniques of the time wouldn’t have allowed them to do really substantive bioassays,” he said.
In 2000, after a joint study conducted alongside the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the EPA designated Portland Harbor a Superfund site, meaning efforts to mitigate the problem would be receiving federal funding.
In 2017, the EPA issued its final cleanup plan, granting $1.05 billion to cleanup efforts.
In spreading the findings of his research, Hillegas-Elting said he hopes to help inspire people to pay attention and get involved. Change doesn’t happen because of top-down efforts like those of McCall, he argues, but through the actions of many.
“The hope is to get away from the over simplified, mythologized narrative of history,” Hillegas-Elting said. “It takes a broad base of people, and if often takes them many years, if not decades of working together to enact real change in society. To me, that’s one of the key lessons of this narrative.”