River of no return

Seattle’s Duwamish has been straightened, dredged and heavily polluted. Can a Superfund cleanup bring it back to life?

  • Yasmeen Salvador, right, and Diamondeique Willard play on the shores of the polluted Duwamish River in their Seattle neighborhood of South Park.

    Jordan Stead
  • A tugboat trundles up the Duwamish River past a working factory and a sign that warns against eating fish from the waterway.

    Jordan Stead
  • South Park residents Patty Engrissei and Sam Town watch the waters of the Duwamish River flow by while out walking their dogs. “We’ve lived in South Park for 10 years, and we know fishing out of the river is a no-no.” Engrissei says. “If you can’t swim in it, we don’t eat out of it.”

    Jordan Stead
  • An oily residue coats the quicksand-like shores of the Duwamish River near Boeing Field.

    Jordan Stead
  • The industrial East Fork of the Duwamish River, where cranes and boats frame Seattle’s skyline.

    Jordan Stead
  • Justin Euthy, 10, and his father pack up their fishing gear after failing to catch anything from the waters of the Duwamish River under the Spokane Street Bridge.

    Jordan Stead
  • Daily life in South Park, where poverty and pollution reduce lifespans by an average of 13 years compared to upscale Seattle neighborhoods.

    Jordan Stead
  • Fishing line drapes a trash-covered piling.

    Jordan Stead
  • Daily life in South Park, where poverty and pollution reduce lifespans by an average of 13 years compared to upscale Seattle neighborhoods.

    Jordan Stead
 

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When Col. Isaac Ebey first paddled up the Duwamish with Native guides on a surveying trip in 1850, he was struck by the dark alluvial soil deposited along its shores. "The river meanders through rich bottom land," he wrote, "not heavily timbered, with here and there a beautiful plain of unrivaled fertility." He followed a tributary called the Black River until he reached an enormous body of water he found so clear and beautiful he named it after Switzerland's Lake Geneva.

Since renamed Lake Washington and folded in the city's arms, today it's best known for its tony marinas, verdant parks and waterfront estates belonging to people like Microsoft's Bill Gates and Amazon's Jeff Bezos. But even if his canoe could dodge the shipping barges that now swarm the Duwamish, Col. Ebey would have trouble finding this scenic spot today, at least by his original route.

In an ambitious project designed to ease flooding and improve navigation and shipping, the river was straightened. About 20 million cubic yards of mud and sand were removed, and 13 miles of the lower Duwamish were reduced to five. The effort cut the river off from most of its tributaries, including the Black, which vanished completely in 1916, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a shipping canal connecting Lake Washington to Puget Sound a few miles north. When the canal opened, the lake's level dropped 8.8 feet in a single day, well below the Black's intake, and bled the short river out. "That was quite a day for the white people at least," Duwamish tribal member Joseph Moses told a newspaper reporter shortly after the Black disappeared. "The waters just went down, down, until our landing and canoes stood dry. There were pools, of course, and the fish trapped in them. People came from miles around, laughing and hollering and stuffing fish into gunny sacks."

Today, only the Green River feeds the Duwamish, making the two essentially one. You can buy blue jeans at the mall that rose from the Black's former riverbed. Comparing the Duwamish to the other clear, rushing rivers flowing from the Northwest's aptly named Cascade Mountains, poet Richard Hugo wrote in 1961 that it had become "Midwestern in the heat," its curves "slow and sick." But businessmen came in droves to set up mills and shipyards. Boeing built its first planes on the banks of the river, and by World War II was operating a 1.7 million square-foot manufacturing plant that turned out nearly 7,000 B-17 bombers.

The pollution quickly followed. In 1945, researchers commissioned by the state of Washington found that Boeing was dumping 500 pounds of acetylene generator waste and 200 to 250 pounds of "highly toxic" solution into the river every day, including coolants rich in polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a new class of chemicals. A nearby forge that manufactured nuts and bolts dumped its used oil into an on-site sand pit. Once the sand was saturated, the oil would begin washing into the river – toxic contamination, saved for a rainy day.

PCB use was on the rise locally for other reasons, too: In addition to their cooling powers, PCBs make paint last longer and caulk seal better. "For high-end construction, companies would buy the best product on the shelf," says David Schuchardt, the Duwamish River program leader with Seattle Public Utilities, which is charged with trying to stem the chemical's flow into the river. "The best product on the shelf contained PCBs."

Still, industry's toll took time to reveal itself, says Marianne Clark, a diminutive 62-year-old who keeps her gray-blonde hair in a loose ponytail. Clark has lived much of her life near the Duwamish. Her grandparents bought one of the first houses built on the former riverbed after the Duwamish was straightened – an A-frame in a neighborhood called Georgetown, where Clark now lives. As children in the '50s, Clark and her brother caught salmon, perch and what she calls "junk fish," bottom-feeders and the like, and ate them all. "We would even swim in that river."

But today, she won't even let her dog set foot in the Duwamish: It stinks, and when the water's low, the mudflats have the iridescent sheen of oil. Some 41 toxic substances, including arsenic, mercury and lead, lace its riverbed at levels that exceed state standards. PCBs –– banned in 1979 after they were revealed to be carcinogenic –– are by far the most pervasive. They can also suppress human immune function and cause learning deficits in children.

All the species in the river except salmon, which migrate from the ocean through the river corridor fast enough to avoid serious contamination, contain PCB levels that exceed the state's threshold for safe consumption in any amount. English sole found here, for example, contain 10 times the state's permitted PCB levels, meaning that even if the contamination were cut to a tenth of what it is now, the state would still consider the fish dangerous to eat. "Crab butter," which comes from the Dungeness crab's digestive tract and is considered a delicacy by many of Seattle's Asian immigrants, has similarly staggering levels.

Residents of Georgetown and South Park, the neighborhoods that flank today's Superfund Site on either side of the river, began fighting the area's marginalization in the 1960s. Seattle's City Council was trying to rezone the two neighborhoods as an industrial area, evicting people from their homes in favor of yet more industry. BJ Cummings, a longtime advocate with the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, calls the city's decision "a very real attempt to (completely) dispossess people of this river." Four thousand people marched on City Hall, ultimately scuttling the effort. It was a subtle shift in the Duwamish's fortunes, Cummings says: People had begun "reclaiming the river for themselves. Not taking it back from industry, but starting to share it again."

Then, beginning in the 1970s, a Vietnam veteran named John Beal surprised everyone by showing that reclamation was still possible. Beal, who had heart problems, had been told he had only a few months to live, so, hoping to leave a positive legacy, he adopted a little urban Duwamish tributary named Hamm Creek that had been filled in with garbage. Over the next three decades, Beal pulled trash out of the stream, removed pipes that diverted water underground so it could flow in the daylight, and restored native plants. By the time he died in 2006, a healthy salmon run had returned.

Clark and her neighbors, meanwhile, have planted native vegetation along the Duwamish since the 1990s, trying to help restore the few small patches of natural riverbank that still exist. But she says it was always a struggle to get the rest of the city – environmentally conscious as it is – to care about the river. As a result, work on behalf of the Duwamish remained mostly piecemeal until 2000, when the city, King County, the Port of Seattle and Boeing learned that the EPA was considering the area for its Superfund list and got together to create a cleanup plan, hoping to avoid the bureaucratic fuss – and stigma – of a designation. There was no doubt that the river's pollution was severe enough to warrant federal oversight and cleanup funds, but the group hoped to convince the EPA they could handle it on their own. The EPA didn't buy it.

The Superfund listing brought more attention to the river's plight, Clark says. And as part of the cleanup, the EPA helped create and fund the river's first and only devoted advocacy group, the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, to give the poor communities living on its banks a say – sort of like a public defender in court, paid by the government to argue against its own prosecutors. The coalition has fought fiercely for the river, and the residents along its banks, ever since: "We're the ones who made a ton of fucking money off of Puget Sound," coordinator James Rassmussen told one local blog last year. "Seattle became Seattle on the back of the Duwamish River. It's time to pay that back."