No Fisherman Deserves a Toxic River

by: Posted on: January 25, 2011

Editor’s Note: This piece appears in our “Dirt” section because the current unhealthy condition of the Duwamish River has been and continues to be caused by toxic sediment.

The campaign to (really) clean up Seattle’s Duwamish River

By Cari Simson, Program Manager, Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition and BJ Cummings, Development and Policy Advisor, Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2001 listed Seattle’s Duwamish River – the five-mile long industrial waterway flowing between South Park and Boeing Field – as one of the nation’s most polluted hazardous waste sites in the United States. The Duwamish River begins as the Green River at Stampede Pass, by Mount Rainier, and flows north through rural and suburban areas of Enumclaw, Auburn, Kent, and Renton. In Tukwila, the Green becomes the Duwamish and flows out to Elliott Bay through the Seattle neighborhoods of South Park, Georgetown and the south-downtown industrial area. Before 1850, the river was a wide, muddy, shallow estuary with over 5,200 acres of tidally-influenced wetlands, marshes and riparian forests. Today only 2% of that original habitat is left, as it has been reduced to a 5-mile dredged channel through intense dredging by the Army Corps of Engineers and local governments beginning in 1913. The industrial area grew quickly over the first part of the 20th century, with companies like Boeing, Glacier Cement, Seattle Iron and Metal, and Alaska Marine Lines dominating the Duwamish shorelines. Today hundreds of industries fill the Duwamish industrial area, providing over 70,000 family-wage jobs. Any solution to the Duwamish Superfund cleanup must include jobs, retrofitting currently toxic sites, and strategic community-based planning to keep Seattle’s industrial area relevant in the new 21st century economy.

Along with ongoing pollution, the current pollution in the bottom of the river includes historic toxins from industries long-gone. The results of an EPA 2008 investigation show the mud at the bottom of the river is tainted with PCBs (a banned carcinogen), dioxins (a key ingredient in Agent Orange), cPAHs, arsenic, and 38 other pollutants exceeding environmental and human health standards. The impacts of this toxic stew are being felt throughout the Duwamish River, starting with the micro-bugs that live in the mud and on up through the fish, wildlife, and people at the top of the food chain. The river has been tagged for cleanup by the Federal government through the EPA, and Washington State, but will their cleanup plan protect those who are most vulnerable? Increased cancer risks threaten the river’s fishermen, especially tribal, low-income and homeless anglers who fish in one of the nation’s biggest Superfund sites in order to put dinner on the table.

EPA and the parties responsible for the cleanup (City of Seattle, King County, the Port of Seattle, and the Boeing Company) circulated a “menu” of options for the river’s cleanup. Choices include removing contaminated mud (dredging), covering the worst contamination with clean material (capping), and letting the river’s natural sedimentation slowly bury the pollution in place (about 12,000 dump trucks of upriver sediment settle out in the river each year). The problem is that the upriver sediment isn’t clean either. So, no matter which option EPA chooses, ongoing pollution will probably prevent the Duwamish from ever being clean enough to protect the fishermen’s health. And none of the clean up choices in EPA’s menu gives the public a chance to weigh in on what to do about this fatal flaw.

The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition (DRCC), EPA’s Community Advisory Group, is organizing the Duwamish communities – its residents, recreational users, businesses, and fishermen – to respond to EPA’s limited options. DRCC hosted a series of public workshops in November to help the community develop new options that include the missing ingredient – controlling the ongoing sources of pollution. While the EPA’s “Feasibility Study” says that source control is being handled by the Washington State Department of Ecology, it isn’t considered a part of the alternatives up for public review. Ecology’s program, it turns out, doesn’t include upriver sources, which are expected to account for over 95% of pollutants entering the site – an omission that may prove to undermine the entire cleanup effort. Indeed, the study concludes that it is not possible to protect fishermen’s health because ongoing pollution is expected to continue at levels that will forever cause cancer in the river’s most exposed users – its tribal and subsistence fishermen. Instead, fishing “advisories” will need to remain in effect – permanently – to discourage people from fishing in the river.

But telling people not to fish is not a substitute for cleanup, according to Dr. Peter deFur, a cleanup expert and technical advisor to DRCC who has worked at Superfund sites around the country. Especially when people won’t, or can’t stop fishing just because they are told the river is polluted. When it comes time to put dinner on the table, a contaminated dinner that might give you cancer in ten years is better than no dinner at all. You can read DRCC’s comment letter to the EPA on the Feasibility Study’s river cleanup options, which includes many of the concerns outlined in this article:

Over the next year, the EPA will review public comments on the draft cleanup options, and a year from now (early 2012), the public will be invited again to make comments through a public meeting. In the meantime, citizens, businesses and governments need to put more emphasis on “source control” to keep ongoing pollutants from entering the nearest waterbody, through green stormwater infrastructure, treatment, and at the consumer level.

For more information about the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group and our current activities and actions, please see or call 206-954-0218.

One Response to “No Fisherman Deserves a Toxic River”

  • This problem isn't alarming, what is however, are the restrictions that the EPA and Washington Departement of Ecology have placed on the opinion of locals. Economy first, right? I think that's whats going on. Perhaps people working in the EPA and Department of Ecology are tied down themselves by superiors. Cheers to the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition!
    by: Christopher Youngon: Monday 10th of October 2011

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