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Communities | Environment

Polluted Waters: How Clean Is Clean?

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SEATTLE — A line of people snakes out the door of the food bank in the South Park neighborhood.

This is a community tucked in between a major highway and a bend in the Duwamish River. The people here this morning are mostly Asian and Hispanic.

Even with the fresh produce, milk, bread and other provisions they’ll get, some of the people here also eat what they catch in the Duwamish.

“Sometime I go to with my friends and my family and they fish. Very small,” says Aun Le, a woman in a pink sweatshirt. She’s one of the people visiting the food bank. Asked if they eat the fish they catch, Le responds, “Yeah. Very good.”

Many of the crabs, shellfish and bottom-feeding fish in the Duwamish are contaminated with carcinogens. Signs are posted in several languages warning against eating them.

Bill Daniell, a professor and researcher at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, says there’s a lack of good data on the number of people who eat fish from the Duwamish.

“But we know there are people from a variety of different racial and ethnic backgrounds who fish on the river,” he says. “The concern is that these are populations that, on average, many of these groups already suffer or experience health disparities or disparities in health risk and is it really fair?”

Tainted fish defy clean water mandate

Under the Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, pollution was supposed to be curtailed so that fish from all the waters in America would be safe for people to eat. Forty years later, though, many waterways still bear fish too tainted to consume safely.

The Duwamish River isn’t the only river or lake in the Northwest where pollution has prompted advisories against eating resident fish, or limiting the amount consumed. The government says children and pregnant women shouldn’t eat more than three monthly servings of catfish from the Boise River. And Oregon health officials have a similar warning against bass and other fish that stay year-round in the Portland area’s Columbia River Slough.

The Duwamish is among the most polluted urban waterways in the Northwest. The lower part of the river was declared a Superfund site in 2001. That means the polluters have to work with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean it up.

More than ten years later the EPA and the polluters are close to proposing a clean up plan. But there’s still some debate about how clean this river should be.

Clean enough to kayak on?

Clean enough to swim in?

How about eating the fish that live in this river?

“With the technology we have today we cannot reduce the risk from eating fish from the river to an unlimited amount,” says Stephanie Jones-Stebbins, the director of seaport environmental and planning for the Port of Seattle. “It’s an urban environment. When the cleanup is done it will be at a similar level to other urban areas throughout the sound and throughout the country but there will be risk.”

A working river

Stephane Jones-Stebbins
Stephanie Jones-Stebbins

Jones-Stebbins’ employer is one of the parties responsible for the pollution in the Duwamish. That means the Port is required to fund part of the clean up, along with the other responsible parties: The Boeing Company, the city of Seattle and King County. The current clean up plan favored by the EPA and responsible parties would cost $300 million. It would include dredging contaminated muck from some parts of the river bottom and capping it over with clean sediment.

That plan could get pollutant levels down by 90 percent over the next 17 years.

Jones-Stebbins says that the river will get much cleaner, but at the end of the day, the Duwamish is an industrial waterway.

“It’s the economic heart of the region. There’s 100,000 jobs that depend upon it. A good portion of the manufacturing jobs are right here,” she says.

Seattle’s Duwamish River has been the industrial heart of the city for over a century.

It’s been straightened, filled and diked. During World War II thousands of airplanes were built there.

Today cargo from around the world arrives in massive container ships, lining the mouth of the river. Industrial facilities dot its banks.

The river comes in the back door of the city to the west of Interstate-5 — past stormwater outflows, marinas, rusting barges and heaps of scrap metal. It escapes to Puget Sound beneath the West Seattle Bridge between piles of shipping containers and giant cranes.

The Duwamish’s signs of recovery

But despite all that, this river is on the path to recovery.

Perhaps no one has been monitoring that recovery as closely as James Rasmussen and Chris Wilke. Rasmussen is with the Duwamish River Clean up Coalition. Wilke is the head of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. They’re taking me on a motorboat headed up the Duwamish.

“We’re about ready to cross under the Spokane Street Bridge,” Rasmussen says. “Most people traveling to West Seattle don’t know that this is the Duwamish River because there’s no sign on this bridge.”

Rasmussen pulls out maps of the river. They are dotted with patches of grey, red and yellow – representing various levels of arsenic, PCBs and dioxins. These are all dangerous pollutants - leftovers from this river’s industrial legacy.

But Rasmussen says things are looking up… slowly.

“Ten being good and one being bad,” 30 years ago it was at a two, today it’s a four, which is a lot better than it was,” he says.

Chris Wilke points to a concrete wall along the water’s edge.

Chris Wilke
Chris Wilke

“We don’t see a lot of natural shoreline as it originally was. The entire estuary has been straightened and dredged to make way for large ships to come in here,” he says. “Even still within this heavily developed landscape there actually are little pockets where they are restoring some more natural functions to the beach.”

The Boeing Company, The Port of Seattle and other responsible parties are already putting over $100 million into research and clean up on the Duwamish.

James Rasmussen mentioned that he’s spotted a river otter several times; it favors a certain boat slip. A few minutes later, as if on cue, a river otter lopes along the muddy beach, ducking under stormwater pipes and pilings.

James Rasmussen
James Rasmussen

“To see where the wildlife is starting to come back and where they go is fascinating,” he says.

Wilke is seeing more river otters during his regular trips up and down the river. But he also sees repeat violators of the Clean Water Act. The act requires industrial facilities to get permits if they want to discharge into waterways.

There are more than two dozen industrial facilities on this river. They all have permits to release certain amounts of toxic substances, but many of them exceed those permits.

Stormwater adds to pollution’s challenge

The Department of Ecology classifies the Duwamish River as an impaired waterway. That means the agency is required to come up with a plan to clean it up.

And this river’s not alone. The majority of the rivers tested by state environmental agencies in Idaho, Oregon and Washington are polluted enough to be listed as impaired waterways.

_View Duwamish River in a larger map_

Restoring the Duwamish River isn’t just about cleaning up the old polluted spots. There are modern sources of contamination as well. Every time it rains contaminated storm water flows into the Duwamish from the surrounding 14 miles of industrial and residential areas.

Lori Cohen is the associate director of the superfund clean up program at the Environmental Protection Agency. She says cleaning up stormwater is a broader and more diffuse problem that’s less easily dealt with than dredging old contaminated muck out of the bottom of a river.

“And really it will be a societal decision as to how much we invest in stormwater controls to reduce the impacts to the Duwamish and really to other rivers throughout the country,” she says.

But on the Duwamish Cohen acknowledges that storm water is far less of a problem than the industrial contamination from previous decades.

Cohen says tackling the most polluted parts of the Superfund site is the first step.

“We will make some significant progress in eliminating some of the most egregious hot spots that we see in the river,” she says. “We believe that we will see significant reductions in contamination levels in fish and this will be an ongoing effort for many many years.”

Cohen says it’s impossible to determine how much those levels in fish will drop.

But of all the possible clean up plans the EPA is considering right now, none of them guarantee a river that is safe for regular fish consumption.

The EPA will open the doors for public comment on its proposed clean up plan for the Duwamish River in January.

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There’s more to come in our series, “Clean Water: The Next Act:”

  • Development-related pollution in the form of rainwater runoff poses an increasing threat to water quality.

  • Clean water isn’t just under threat from big facilities, urban development, and runoff from suburban sprawl. In the rural Northwest, logging and farming practices are degrading our rivers and streams.

  • Waterways increasingly contain potentially dangerous residues of the lotions, potions and pills that keep us well and clean and smelling nice – a threat the Clean Water Act was never intended to stem.

  • Sewage treatment remains a major source of water pollution, with increasing numbers of governments struggling financially and beset by aging wastewaster treatment facilities.

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