Columbia Slough

The Columbia slough  is a narrow 18-mile waterway in the floodplain of the Columbia River along Portland Oregon’s northern boundary. It travels though Gesham and Portland and slowly feeds into the Williamette River. The slough suffered heavy pollution dating back to the early 20th century and clean up efforts have been in affect since, some more successful than others.

The Northern Peninsula or Portland seemed like prime real estate back when immigrants and other minority populations were moving to the U.S. The location seemed great, right on the river, close to the factories for work, and the excitement of starting a new chapter of life in a new place. While all of these factors seemed to be ideal for the young worker or families new to the United States, many hazards came from living near the slough in the 20th century which sparked not only health issues, but environmental and justice issues as well.

The first businesses along the Columbia Slough included slaughterhouses, stockyards, a meat packing plant, a dairy farm, a shingle company, and a lumber mill. All of these industries were conveniently located near the slough which was where all of their waste ended up being deposited. The slough also fell victim to de-icing fluid from a local airport, pesticides, and raw sewage.

“I remember it in my mind as a nice little wavey slough,” resident John Bonebrake, who was born in 1910 said. “It’s nothing but a stagnant, stale, smelly, stream now.” (1)

The pollution of this slough had health affects to anyone that lived near the banks of the water. Knowing this, the land that was for sale near the banks became relatively cheap and affordable. This land was right in the price range of any lower middle class family just moving into the area. Of the people that ended up buying this dangerous property near the slough were predominately black and other ethnic minorities because it in their price range.

This raises the question of environmental justice and how those who cant afford to live in an upper middle class area really do sacrifice safety. Similar to our class discussion about how those who live in trailers spent the last moments of their life watching their home disintegrate around them during a major disaster. Because trailers were all they could afford, they sacrificed a stable foundation and durable material to withstand high wind and heavy rain. What left the people who lived near the slough however, was being vulnerable to floods and being in close contact of the toxic pollutants that were being dumped in the slough every day.

The pollution in the slough became even worse when World War II (WWII) began. With the war underway in 1939, many eager young laborers were in high demand at the factories in the Northern Portland Peninsula. Of these laborers, many were black or immigrants from around the world, however with the influx of a variety of ethnicities, the area soon became stereotyped as a predominately black area. During the war, The North Portland Peninsula acquired a reputation as an area of industry, housing projects, and black residents. While industry and housing projects were true, the third was not. Many white city residents were beginning to see North Portland as a throw-away zone due to the race of the population that began to settle down there. Pollution got increasingly worse as factories were under higher production and other means of waste were also being dumped into the slough, disregarding the type of people that lived near it.

Henry J. Kaiser realized that the lack of housing in Portland was threatening his ability to recruit the army of workers that his war-time production schedule at his Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation factories demanded. He decided it would be best to building cheap apartments near the factory so workers would be close to work. In hindsight, this was a bad idea. Kaiser skipped many building codes and regulations and ended up constructing a plethora of unstable apartments. These were not meant to be permanent homes, but because of the affordable prices and convenience, many predominately black workers moved in. Having African-American’s as neighbors were a new experience for many Portland residents which is where the origin of labeling Portland as the “negro project” quickly came from. Many of these African-Americans found home in Kaiser realities. However, by January of 1943, about 6,000 people were living in these shambly subdivisions on wet unstable land. By the end of March, 10,000 people called Vanport home. These buildings did not meet code and would not withstand any major weather or natural disaster.

In May of 1948, brought heavy rains and warm weather, both which contributed to unusually high water levels in Oregon’s rivers. On Memorial Day, water level was 15 feet above the city floor. However, the sheriff’s office assured residents that there was nothing to fear. They were proved wrong when flood waters crashed through dikes and a ten foot wall of water crashed through the town. More than 2,000 people were declared missing, 15 were confirmed dead. Kaiser apartment buildings were reported to be seen floating down the river. The flood sealed the drainage canal which only slowed the sewages trip downstream even more.

This raises another question of environmental justice and trust in athorities of the area. The dismissive attitude of the flood did not prepare any one for the loss of their homes or loved ones, something that even the upper middle white class were affected by. It took a disaster like this flood to affect everyone in Portland which was when actions were finally starting to be considered for taking better care of the Columbia slough.

After the flood affected the majority of the population in Vanport, action was finally taken. It took a while, but with Tom McMall as governor in the 1980s, he oversaw the creation of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the concerted effort to clean up the Williamette River, which had been so polluted that fish suffocated in its water. He also pushed “B” bills which required removal of billboard, reasserted public ownership of ocean beaches, set minimum deposits on beverage bottles and cans, allocated money for bicycle paths from highway revenues, and tied bonding for pollution abatement to the growth of total assessed values.

With awareness and action slowly coming into fruition, the slough today still faces some issues. An article published in 2012 revealed high levels of pollutants in fish still found in the columbia river. Three recreational fishermen gave up their catch one day from fishing in the Columbia slough for pollutant testing. Tests revealed that levels of arsenic, mercury and PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) that exceed what the Environmental Protection Agency recommends for safe, unrestricted fish consumption.

One of the fish from the slough contained 27,000 percent more PCB than the level EPA says is safe to eat without health concerns. A small-mouth bass caught near Hood River contained levels of mercury that exceed the levels recommended for safe, unrestricted consumption by 300 percent. Also, test revealed heavy metal chromium and flame retardants polybrominated biphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, which are used in furniture and electronics, among other products, and are known to disrupt hormone functions and increase cancer risk. A toxicologist with Oregon Health Authority, David Farrer, said the PCB level in the sucker fish are about eight times above the level at which a warning would be released that advises people to limit the amount of fish they eat.

However, he’s more concerned about the levels of the flame retardants PBDEs than PCBs when he says, “PCBs are decreasing in the environment since they’ve been banned,” he said. “They’re overall on a downward trend. PBDEs are on an upward trend, and they’re just as persistent. They’re very similar in structure to PCBs, and there’s a lot to indicate there’s something to worry about there.” (2)

Lorri Epstein, water quality director for Columbia Riverkeeper, said clearly PCBs are still a problem even though they were banned decades ago. She also comments how the test results call for more than fish advisories.

“It’s not enough to issue fish advisories warning pregnant women and children not to eat fish,” she said. “We need to reduce the levels of toxins in these fish so people can safely eat them.” (3)

Other actions have been taken to help with the quality of the slough. Since 2006, volunteers titled “Riverkeepers” have monitored sites in Oregon and Washington collecting water samples to test water quality.

In early January, Riverkeepers submitted 2013 water quality data to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) from 62 sites on the Columbia River and tributaries. Fifty-two of the sites monitored (84%) had at least one violation of the state water quality standards. The state of Oregon will use this data in their statewide assessments of whether water bodies are meeting safety limits for swimming, fishing, and threatened salmon species.

Steve Hanson from Oregon DEQ recognized Riverkeeper’s contribution stating, “The Riverkeeper program has developed into a high-quality monitoring program that links a large number of volunteers together over a long stretch of the river. That in itself is valuable, but the volunteers also do an excellent job of documenting the quality of the data they collect thereby providing useful data at a resolution the DEQ would never be able achieve alone. Some of this data has already identified opportunities to improve water quality.” (4)

Riverkeepers continue to do volunteer research and are passionate about improving the quality of the columbia slough.

columbia volunteers




(1) John Bonebrake, qtd. in Ellen Stroud, “Troubled Waters in Ecotopia: Environmental Racism in Portland, Oregon,” 1999.

(2) David Farrer, qtd. in Cassandra Profita, “Tests Reveal High Levels of Toxic Pollutants In Columbia River Fish,” 2012.

(3) Lorri Epstein, qtd. in Cassandra Profita, “Tests Reveal High Levels of Toxic Pollutants In Columbia River Fish,” 2012.

(4) Steve Hanson, qtd. in Lorri Epstein, “Riverkeeper Citizen Scientists Submit Water Quality Data to the State of Oregon” 2014.

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