By Daniel Person
Kids who were born the year Seattle’s Lower Duwamish Waterway was designated a Superfund site are now approaching high school. If everything goes according to plan, the federally ordered river cleanup will be finished by the time they are well into their 30s.
So it’s hard to describe anything in this sluggish process as “momentous,” but the recent release of the Environmental Protection Agency’s final cleanup order for Seattle’s only river certainly fits that bill,
The order is the EPA’s prescription for returning the Duwamish to health after more than a century of the river-equivalent of a life of hard drinking and chain smoking: In the last 100 years, the Duwamish has been choked off from most of its headwaters and straightened from 13 miles to 5. It was used for decades as an industrial waste dump for corporations like Boeing, which was founded along its banks and will foot a significant portion of the cleanup bill.
Today, the river is so saturated with industrial pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyl that toxicity in some fish surpasses the Washington state threshold for safe human consumption by a factor of 10. Cutting through south Seattle en route to the Puget Sound, the river has long been a glaring mar on the city’s proud reputation as a clean and green metropolis.
Boeing and other major polluters — which include the city of Seattle itself — have already spent more than $150 million on cleaning the river since it was designated a Superfund site in 2001. The recent EPA order adds another $342 million to the planned work, though that cost will be shared by hundreds of entities that have contributed to the pollution over the decades. The figure is almost $40 million higher than initially proposed by the EPA, since the agency decided more toxic mud needed to be removed from the river-bottom.
Nearly 1 million cubic yards of poisonous sludge will be scooped up, put onto barges and trucks and hauled to a storage site in eastern Washington. Other toxic mud will be left in the river but “capped” to prevent contamination from reaching the water; still more will be buried in sand. Active cleanup of the river will take seven years, after which the EPA will monitor the river for another 10, in hopes that more pollution will naturally flush from its system.
The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, a feisty activist group that had lobbied the federal government for more dredging to be included in the final plan, applauded the EPA for increasing the amount of polluted sediment that would be removed from the river.
But as I reported for High County News in June, even a vastly restored Duwamish will carry a sober message about what happens to rivers when the land around them is heavily developed. Even as old pollution is removed from the river bottom, the waterway’s heavily industrialized and urbanized valley will still act as a giant catch basin for hydrocarbons and industrial chemicals. That’s because many of Seattle’s urban and industrial storm drains still run off into the river untreated. Efforts to control this sort of pollution are underway, but no one believes that the Duwamish can be completely quarantined from the everyday pollutants used in the world around it.
Dennis McLerran, administrator of EPA Region 10, which oversees the cleanup, reiterated what regulators have been saying for years: No matter how much is spent restoring the Duwamish, the fish that live in the water will never be clean enough to eat without restriction. (As is, the state health department has put all resident Duwamish fish and shellfish under a “Do Not Eat” advisory, meaning no fish should be consumed from the river.)
“This is an urban river. An urban river, even with the best kinds of controls, will have some contamination from historic pollution and ongoing sources,” McLerran said. “We think this will be a much safer place to recreate. But it will not be a place where unlimited amounts of fish will be able to be consumed.”
That’s significant — and kind of heartbreaking — because the flip side of the Duwamish being an urban river is that it poses an attractive fishing spot for those who live around it; Seattle’s poorest neighborhoods are within walking distance. One man catching Dungeness crab from the river last year told me he knew that crabs in the Duwamish were polluted, but said he checked whether they were black or not before eating them, betraying a basic misunderstanding of chemical pollution, since fish don’t have to be discolored to be contaminated.
The cleanup should make consuming a limited amount of crab OK. But even that is many years away.
“We’re still looking at a 20-year period,” said B.J. Cummings, development and policy advisor with the Cleanup Coalition. “That’s a whole other generation of families growing up with poison fish on the table.”
Daniel Person is a contributor to High Country News and writes from the Seattle area.