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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South Park is a vibrant neighborhood whose summertime streets are given over to masked wrestling matches known as Lucha Libre. On a Saturday afternoon, you might stumble on a Vietnamese barbecue in an unnamed park. The Duwamish Tribe, which has fought for federal recognition for years, still has a home here in a 6,000-square-foot longhouse that serves as events center, museum, gift shop and tribal headquarters. In one block, you might see a small totem pole, a Latino counseling service and a cherished dive bar where a pint of Rainier still costs $2.50. Fifty-five percent of South Park's residents are minorities – a stark contrast to the surrounding city, which is 70 percent white. American Indians make up 1.9 percent of the neighborhood population, Vietnamese and other Asian nationalities, 15 percent, and Hispanics, 37 percent. This means that the effects of the river's pollution are felt disproportionately by Seattle's minority community – both the city's oldest inhabitants and its most recent immigrants.

That's why, on a bright summer day, Peter Quenguyen is charging from group to group at a picnic on a dusty patch of South Park land, shaking hands, hugging people and cracking jokes about his own small stature. As part of the Superfund process, the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition and the EPA use gatherings like this and liaisons like Quenguyen to inform local residents about both the contaminated fish and the river cleanup. A giant pot of beef stew boils over open flames as we nosh fresh watermelon. A woman offers me a drink, then laughs: "Don't worry, this isn't Duwamish water!"

"A lot of people from Vietnam, they escaped from the river side," Quenguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant, tells me. "Most of them are from a fishing family. They like being by a river." But they often lack information about the risks posed by Duwamish fish, or else choose to ignore them –– either unwilling to sacrifice tradition or too hungry to consider long-term consequences, he explains. There are also language barriers, and the fact that the Duwamish, dirty as it is, still looks better than many rivers in developing countries, where pollution is more clearly signaled by, say, the smell and sight of raw sewage.

The challenges reach beyond the local Asian population. On a fishing pier festooned with glaring yellow warning signs in eight languages telling people not to eat any species other than salmon, I find a Hispanic man sipping a Budweiser and using a spindly line with 10 hooks to draw tiny, bottom-feeding perch from the water. He hands each catch to his young son, who laughs as the still-wriggling creatures slip through his small fingers onto the wooden planks of the dock. The man tells me in Spanish, through a translator, that he lives close by and fishes often; just the other week, he was fined for catching salmon without a license. The perch, he says, are delicious fried and eaten whole.

Such fishermen are a common sight along the Duwamish, and the local ethnic communities consume a lot of fish. A survey conducted by the EPA, for example, found the average Southeast Asian diet consisted of 51.6 grams of fish per day – or about three 7-ounce filets of non-salmon fish per week – nearly seven times the average consumed by the general public.

But how much of that comes from the Duwamish is unknown. Survey after survey has been frustrated by small sample sizes, or the locals' reluctance to discuss their dietary habits. Many simply don't know where their fish come from: Researchers who surveyed 1,005 King County immigrants in 2011 noted that some residents purchased seafood from ad hoc stands with mysterious sourcing. Only two people surveyed even knew the Duwamish by name.

It's also unknown how the pollution is affecting local health. But it certainly isn't helping: The number of South Park residents "in poor health" is 40 percent higher in neighborhoods near the Duwamish than in King County as a whole, according to county health officials, thanks in part to rampant poverty and environmental issues such as air and soil pollution. The rate of hospitalizations for childhood asthma is twice the county average.

Meanwhile, Duwamish-area residents on average die 13 years earlier than residents of Laurelhurst, the city's healthiest neighborhood, according to a recent analysis of census data by the University of Washington and the EPA. Ironically, Laurelhurst, which boasts a median income twice Seattle's average, is located where, a century ago, the new shipping canal was connected to Lake Washington, dooming the Black. It's a stereotypically lovely Seattle neighborhood, with Craftsman-style homes, flower gardens that spill onto the sidewalks and quiet lanes where Priuses hum by. Green recycling dumpsters outnumber the black ones meant for garbage. Walking here, it's hard to imagine that the Duwamish River shares the same area code. "This garden city can seem benign," author Matthew Klingle noted in his environmental history of Seattle. "But to the residents of the Duwamish Valley, it hardly seems benign."