Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Portland GasCo Building

Portland GasCo Building
7900 NW St. Helens Rd
Portland, Oregon 97210

Pictured above is a Gothic/Victorian building that resembles an old train station (especially with the clock tower up on top of the roof). Unfortunately, this building has a long history of industrial and environmental contamination and should be avoided. It was the site of a gas production and oil-tar distillation plant and there are safety hazards everywhere including the Willamette riverbank next to the building. It was once an administrative building for the gas plant. There were other structures that were torn down back in the 60's:  a powerhouse and a number of gas production buildings. The factory produced gas from coal and oil. It also created briquettes, electrode pitch, naphthalene and Gasco motor fuel. The company closed the Gasco plant when it converted to natural gas in 1957 and its name was changed to Northwest Natural Gas.  The building has sat vacant since 1958.

Gasification: the process of making gas from coal or oil.

Portland Gas and Coke Company (GASCO) purchased the site back in the late 1880s, and built a gasification plant by 1913. Between 1913 and 1923, only gas and lampback briquettes were produced. In 1923, byproducts refining began. In 1925, tar refining operations began. All waste products from the gasification operations were discharged directly to the Willamette River until 1925. After 1925, tars were separated from the waste water in settling ponds. When the plant was shut down in 1956 by GASCO's successor company, Northwest Natural Gas (NWNG), an estimated 30,000 cubic yards of coal tar had accumulated in the ponds. The ponds were buried under 10 feet of fill in 1973. Part of the site was then sold to Wacker Siltronic Corporation. Koppers Company leased an 8-acre portion of the site from NWNG in 1965 and built a coal-tar distillation plant. Waste streams of creosote and pitch were cooled and solidified in storage tanks, and apparently dumped into an on-site disposal pit. (The plant shut down in 1973 and has only been used for the bulk transfer of creosote oil and coal tar pitch since 1977). In December 1993, NWNG signed up for DEQ's Voluntary Cleanup Program. In August 1994, NWNG signed an agreement with DEQ to conduct a Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study at the site. An Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study work plan was submitted to DEQ in January 1995 and approved in August 1995. Upland and near shore remedial investigation is ongoing.

During the first phase of the Remedial Investigation, widespread petroleum contamination was identified in site soils, groundwater, and Willamette River sediments. Tars were identified to depths of 70 feet in the vicinity of the former tar disposal area. In the former plant site area, dense non-aqueous-phase liquids (DNAPLs) were identified at three distinct locations. Monitoring wells installed adjacent to the Willamette River detected elevated levels of benzene and naphthalene. Sediment samples were found to contain high concentrations of poly nuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and tars. Phase I of the RI was completed in March 1996. Conceptual site models for human health and ecological risk assessments were submitted to DEQ in the fall of 1996. A Land and Water Use report and a series of technical memorandum were submitted during the summer of 1997. Phase II of the RI was completed during the fall of 1998. Groundwater contamination was detected up to 100 feet below the surface along the riverbank. A significant zone of tar contamination extending from the site to the river was also confirmed. (4/17/00 ELB/SRP) In March 2000, two cathodic protection wells that extended 400 feet into the basalt aquifer were abandoned. (9/15/00 ELB/SRP) In August 2000, a product recovery system was installed and soil sampling to support support the upland risk assessment was completed. (4/30/01 ELB/SRP) In March 2001, a source control evaluation was initiated to evaluate the potential for upland contaminants to migrate to the Willamette River at levels of concern. This evaluation is on going and includes additional near shore and bank area investigation in 2004. In 2003 NW Natural completed an evaluation of stabilization options for the river bank, an evaluation for a removal action in the upland tar pond area, and draft upland risk assessment.

Oil gasification wastes including: tars, oil, creosote, phenols, poly nuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, BTEX and lead.

Today, this site is one of the two most contaminated areas in the Portland harbor Superfund region. In 2001, The Enviromental Protection Agency was quoted as: "contamination at the GasCo site presents an imminent and substantial threat to human health and the environment." The threats are to sediment-dwelling organisms and humans who come in contact with the muck (river sediment and mud along the banks).

Toxic chemicals in high concentration at the GasCo building site include:

I visited this building on 3/15/2012 and took some photos. There is a guard on duty. The main road leading to the building is private and is not open to the public. This is where the guard shack is located. He was actually very nice to me, although he did have his facts mixed up about the history of the building. You can look at it and take pictures also from Hwy 30. After visiting the building, I think it is too far gone to salvage. It has been sitting vacant since 1957. The gutters and window trim are made of copper and the roof is slate. The building is concrete. The old clock works in the tower now resides in Benton Hall at Oregon State University.

Back in time, when the gas plant was running at full operations (1925 tho 1957), offices occupied the building’s first floor. This is where the plant manager, the supervisors, the heads of divisions É (including) maintenance, construction, a variety of things were located. The secretarial support staff also worked on the first floor.

The second floor was a lab employing about 10 people. This is where product development took place.

The third floor was mostly unoccupied. Sometimes used as a break room for table tennis.

A ladder leads from the 3rd floor to the clock tower.

At peak production, the plant employed about 900 people.

Building Update November 2014

On Nov 21, 2014, DEQ submitted a report to EPA regarding the Portland Harbor (which includes the GasCo site). The report concluded that current and planned cleanup of properties around the Portland Harbor Superfund Site would be sufficient for the US Environmental Protection Agency to effectively implement the in-water remedy treatment plan without delays.  That means the clean up of the harbor/Gasco will continue as planned.

Building Update September 2015

In September 2015, NW Natural began making preparations to demolish the GasCo building.  The basis for removing the building is as follows:
1) the building is structurally unsound
2) the building is contaminated with lead and asbestos
3) it sits on contaminated property and NW Natural is legally required to clean the area up
4) it sits on property zoned industrial and the building is located between a water treatment plant and a natural gas storage operation, so the building can't be sold.

A group called Save The Portland Gasco Building attempted to save the building form being razed.  As of today, they haven't been successful, although, they are still trying!

It is very likely the GasCo building will be taken down by end of 2015.

GasCo Building Time Line

1913 GasCo building is constructed
1913 Gas production begins
1925 Oil distillation begins
1941 Tar settling ponds built on northern end of site
1956 GasCo plant shut down
1958 GasCo changes name to NW Natural Gas Co
1965 Koppers leases 8 acres and builds a coal tar distillation plant
1972 City of Portland purchases site
1973 Koppers shuts down coal tar plant
1973 Settling ponds are buried under 10 feet of fill
1993 Northwest Natural signs up for voluntary clean up of site
1978 City sells site to Siltronic
1988 Tower clockworks removed and donated to Oregon State University
2000 EPA lists site as part of Portland Harbor Superfund
2015 Building scheduled to be demolished


  1. Boy,
    I really appreciate all the work you put into this story. I have been curious about this site for years, but didn't know its name so had a hard time figuring it out. Great Article, Fabulous Job!!!

  2. Thanks Xera! I always thought this old building near the St John's bridge was a train station long ago.............until I dug a little deeper.

  3. Thanks for the history I always wondered as well.

  4. Thanks for filling us in! Now I'll get to impress my friends. I will cite my sources though! ;)

  5. You should probably make another visit. Clean up process is now in place. Part of the ground contaminant clean up contract includes the destruction of this Administration building. This building does not sit on contaminated soil

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    3. So Portland can clean up this historical building but they had no problem selling drug impacted homes to young families with babies and children and only revealed to a small portion that these properties are toxic...now does that make sense? So find some environmental clean up company to train voluntary homeless people. Get the supplies donated. Then let them go to work while earning a skill that would help employability factors and have a forever homeless camp.

  6. " The gutters and window trim are made of copper and the roof is slate. The building is concrete." Thats why it is still standing. Might there be a way to remove the contaminated soil surrounding the building, then seal the building and fence it off?
    Thanks for the history.

  7. My Mom worked, I think on the top floor, as a secretary for the engineers in 1974. I would ride my bike over the St. John's bridge to visit her.
    It was a interesting old building, but oh so polluted all around there.

  8. Looks like they are getting ready to take it down. Sad

  9. Thank You Jeff for the effort & sharing about the Gasco building. Your article gave me a better understanding on the function of the building and how it was resourced.