Food & Culture

Will the Duwamish Ever Be Clean?

42 Chemicals in the River Exceed Human Health Standards

By Maria Dolan December 11, 2014


This article originally appeared in the December 2014 issue of Seattle Magazine.

Blackberries. A cluster of them, fat and ripe, one of Seattle’s sweetest freebies. Normally, I’d pick them—they aren’t growing next to the road, after all. But on this summer day, I’m standing on Harbor Island in South Seattle, designated as a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hazardous-waste Superfund site, and looking at the lower Duwamish River—also a Superfund site. The island is sullied by lead, while the river’s banks and bottom sediment were long ago fouled with other contaminants, many so persistent they’re still with us today; 42 different chemicals in the Duwamish River mud exceed human health standards, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), arsenic, dioxins and hydrocarbons.

The berries are probably fine, but I leave them.

Anyway, there’s a boat waiting. Tan and energetic in blue jeans, BJ Cummings, development and policy adviser for the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition (DRCC), ushers guests into a small white fishing boat owned by the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, a group that patrols the river to prevent pollution. We’ll ply the Duwamish and talk about the years of effort by citizens and the DRCC to force polluters—primary among them Boeing, the Port of Seattle, the City of Seattle and King County—to clean up their toxic legacy. The coalition is the official EPA community advisory group, and has worked for the past 13 years to keep the voices of people who live, work, play and fish by the river front and center.

A few of the most polluted spots on the shoreline are already restored, or on their way; these early action sites were deemed too much of a public health risk to be delayed. But this month, the river’s history will bend, perhaps dramatically, as the EPA settles on the full scope of the cleanup plan, after years of gathering facts. The agency’s preliminary proposal last year included “enhanced natural recovery”: covering areas of river mud that have “moderate” contamination with a several inches of clean material, and in many cases, waiting for upstream sediment to do the rest of the work. An alternative is a more active but thorough cleanup that dredges the contaminated sediment and adds more pollution control on the Green River upstream. Thousands of people weighed in, with 10 to 1—industry included in that number—in favor of a more substantial cleanup. “If you leave contaminants in the river, that means they stay here,” says James Rasmussen, a Duwamish Tribe member and the director of the coalition’s technical advisory group. Today he’s seaworthy in minimalist five-finger shoes, his gray hair brushed back into a neat ponytail. “If you have cancer, you want to make sure that all of the cancer comes out of you, if you have the opportunity to do that.”

James Rasmussen, a Duwamish Tribe member, describes the clean-up as a chance to clear out cancer

It sounds dramatic, but perhaps it’s an apt metaphor. The Duwamish Valley Cumulative Health Impacts Analysis found that residents here ranked the poorest of all of the city’s neighborhood populations in socioeconomic, environmental and public health conditions. (Magnolia fared best.) The area has the greatest number of contaminated waste sites and is tied with Eastlake for worst air pollution, due in part to industry. South Park and Georgetown residents have the lowest life expectancy in the city, at 73.3 years, eight years less than the Seattle average.

“The main thing people asked for is maximum health protection,” says Cummings, including protecting the river’s fish and wildlife, the people who come in contact with the river and those who eat from the river. With the EPA busy reviewing comments, the coalition is making its final push to put citizens’ concerns in front of elected officials.

BJ Cummings, development and policy adviser for the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, provides close-up views so stakeholders understand this important waterway

As we motor away from the dock and the blackberries, the water sparkles in the sun, and a seal pops its head up to check on us; the river, no longer the scene of a dumping free-for-all, has been coming back to life, with new green spaces and even art installations (see page 178). Other denizens here include fish, Dungeness crab, river otters, sea lions, birds galore and salmon, several runs of them, wriggling through this estuary—saltwater for much of its length—to the Green River to spawn. The fry come back this way to reach Puget Sound. Tribal fishers chase salmon here, and some South Park and Georgetown residents gather fish and crab. But looks can be deceiving: Fish that live in the river are contaminated far beyond human health standards, and there are signs on shore to warn people not to consume what they catch, but “it’s a mixed message,” says the DRCC’s Alberto Rodriguez. The river looks clean. “And you’re hungry,” he says.

In his book Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle, Matthew Klingle illuminates some of the ways we got to this polluted point. Our city grew, and industries thrived, by using the Duwamish for transport and as a dumping ground. One devil’s bargain involved the early-1960s rescue of Lake Washington—which was turning toxic from sewage dumping by Seattle and surrounding towns—by funneling the effluent into the Duwamish instead. Soon, Klingle writes, the president of the Washington State Sportsmen’s Council, enraged over fish kills along the Green and Duwamish rivers, “was lashing out against Metro and the state pollution commission for a ‘buck-passing and stalling attitude’ that had put the Duwamish on the brink of death.”

To get something cleaned up in this city, you could do worse than enlisting Macklemore as a spokesperson. “This is our city’s only river,” rapper Ben Haggerty declared this year during the coalition’s A River for All campaign. “I want to do my part to make sure that it’s safe for all that reside here.” And he did, lending his face to a billboard, and his time to kayaking the Duwamish with the winner of a contest supporting cleanup efforts. Haggerty is only the latest (and most famous) Seattleite to sign on to help this resilient and storied place, where, from the breezy bow of the boat, we look in one direction at a scrap metal heap looming more than 20 feet high, and in the other to watch a broad-winged osprey lift off, leaving its mate behind in their roomy waterside nest. This river attracts champions, and has been doing so ever since it appeared dead to all but industrial purposes.
Rasmussen has been one of those champions. “Back when I started doing environmental work on the river, over 35 years ago, there was little enforcement when polluters dumped garbage and wastewater in here,” he says, nearly shouting at times over the rumble of a cement factory, and then the loud pulses of a train whistle. “The idea then was that this river was the toilet for the city.”

Along with sewage and storm water, gallons of pollutants flowed in daily from industry. Rasmussen saw little wildlife in those years. “There were no herons, no eagles, no otters, no seals—there wasn’t any of that stuff down here at all,” he says.
Devoted volunteers helped turn the tide. John Beal, one legendary caretaker, inspired Rasmussen’s involvement. Beal, who died of a heart attack in 2006, was a Vietnam veteran whose devotion was the result of a pact he made with himself at age 27 when he learned he had a serious heart condition. Over the years, he was largely responsible for the cleanup of Hamm Creek, a once-trashed tributary that empties into the Duwamish, and he became a self-appointed guardian against dumping waste into the Duwamish.

There is almost nothing of the five-mile stretch of navigable river, straightened and dredged, that would be recognizable to someone who saw it before the early 1900s. Before much of the river and its mudflats were filled in, old homes now many blocks away in Georgetown had waterfront views.

Now, shoreline is dominated by industry: outfall pipes, shipping containers, utility poles, metal embankments and construction cranes; hiss and grind, thud and boom. But there is one place that has a little of the former river about it, and Rasmussen was around in the 1970s when it was nearly filled in by the Port of Seattle as a port for shipping containers. It’s a green swath of wildlife habitat with public access called Kellogg Island. In the early days, it was much bigger and known as Mud Island. “It’s the last remaining habitat we have on the river [from] before it was straightened and everything was filled in,” he says. According to Rasmussen, as workers began digging for the port, they uncovered what appeared to be native artifacts, and someone, likely a nearby neighbor, anonymously tipped off Duwamish Tribe members, who raced to the scene. The workers, says Rasmussen,  had uncovered a shell midden, the garbage dump for an old Duwamish village. Cecile Hansen, the tribe’s chair, stood in front of the bulldozers to stop work while the Army Corps and a university archaeologist were summoned, and the spot was designated as an archaeological site. As Rasmussen speaks, a huge great blue heron sweeps past.

Herring’s House Park offers a respite amid the industrialized bustle

Saving the island also saved important habitat for salmon. “One of the things that we say as Duwamish people is that it was our ancestors that reached up,” says Rasmussen, lifting his hand above his head, “because they were the only ones that could have stopped the port at that time.”

Now other hands are reaching out. Chris Wilke plucks a 3-foot chunk of Styrofoam off the surface of the water and tucks it under a seat on the boat. There’s a lot less trash in the river these days, says the Puget Soundkeeper and executive director of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, although there is enough to warrant his patrols. He rubs his beard and lists a few discoveries in recent years: a mile-long oil sheen, sinking vessels, abandoned vessels, assorted debris, and foamy white water, spilling from pipes, that’s decidedly not cappuccino froth. He’s not sure everyone has moved beyond thinking of the Duwamish as an acceptable place to dump waste. “Some people seem to look at the river as a potential ‘sacrifice zone,’” Wilke says. “They think, ‘Maybe we can sacrifice this and protect the San Juan Islands instead. But the Clean Water Act doesn’t allow it. It’s either clean, or it needs to be cleaned up.” Riverside businesses are, for the most part, taking that seriously. “A lot of them really are trying to do the right thing,” Rasmussen says.

South Park resident Pauline Lopez (with her children at 8th Avenue South Park) says she questions the water safety every day

Yet polluted water still discharges into the river after storms, and, even if no more trash landed in the water, old contaminants will stay until they are removed. What if that doesn’t happen? Paulina Lopez, a South Park mother of three who works part-time for the DRCC in community outreach, isn’t sure what she’ll tell her neighbors. “They know I’m involved,” she says. “I have questions every day: Is it OK if my kids swim? Is it OK if they play in the mud?” She props aviator sunglasses on her head as a cloud passes over, and points to a park on the shoreline in South Park, near her home. Her kids call it “rock park,” because they find small stones there to throw into the river. Lopez says that now that she’s learned about the contaminated sediment—and about the health advisory against swimming or wading at the river within three days of a rainstorm—she doesn’t let her kids play in the mud or the water. “It doesn’t feel safe,” she says. And that seems unfair. “What is the good of going if you can only see it and not enjoy it?”

Lopez didn’t know she’d be restricting her kids like this when she moved into the neighborhood, one with substantial Latino and Vietnamese populations and lower incomes than most of the rest of the city. When Lopez and her husband considered moving to South Park 10 years ago, she was drawn to the sound of residents speaking her first language, Spanish, but equally excited, like so many new Seattleites, to find a place with easy access to nature. “When I first saw the river, I was very excited,” she says. “It was one of the reasons why we said yes to moving here.”

Her kids like it there, and they need playtime outside, so she hasn’t given it up. As we land back at the dock, Lopez tells me she’ll be taking her kids to rock park today as usual. “It’s our walking destination every day,” she says. When the place gets cleaned up, she’s hoping she’ll be able to let her kids make mud pies and splash in the water again, too.  


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