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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From the air, the Duwamish appears as an unnaturally straight blue-green line that slices south from Elliot Bay, just across the water from downtown Seattle, neatly bisecting the narrow strip of land between Puget Sound and the gangly north-south reach of Lake Washington. Compared to the wilder sound, what remains of the river is glassy calm, imprisoned between shorelines that host a jarring collage of steel and concrete. Wood pilings rise from the water, blanketed in gray-black barnacles. Cement storm drain outlets with metal gratings like crooked teeth occasionally open like mouths amid the mossy monotony of riprap. In the morning sun, cement plants with domed roofs look vaguely like mosques, and giant brightly colored cranes glimmer as they load and unload shipping containers in the endless cycle of global trade.

These days, barges with dredges comb the cloudy water alongside the usual array of tugboats and shipping barges. They represent the first wave of the Superfund cleanup, dipping their buckets like freakishly monstrous mallards, and emerging dripping with goo and dangling tortured scraps of metal. The so-called Lower Duwamish Waterway Group – the port, city, county and Boeing – is already removing sediment from five parts of the river that are considered so contaminated that officials decided not to wait (see story below).

But the bulk of the cleanup has yet to begin. The EPA proposes to dredge up 790,000 cubic yards of contaminated muck from 84 acres and dispose of it in a permitted landfill in eastern Washington, 250 miles away. It will "cap" another 24 acres of river bottom, burying it under several feet of sand and gravel to prevent contamination from continuing to enter the water. But the agency will leave most of the Superfund site – 256 acres – alone, to undergo a process called "monitored natural recovery," which amounts to seeing how much contamination the river can flush from its own system.

If the agency's modeling proves correct, EPA project lead Allison Hiltner says PCB levels will have dropped by 90 percent 20 years from now, vastly improving the health of both the river and its fish.

The EPA considered a range of cleanup options, the most expensive of which would have cost an estimated $810 million and involved the removal of 3.9 million cubic yards of polluted river sediment. But Hiltner says that pollution reduction dropped off sharply after the process hit the $305 million mark. "If we dredged the rest of the river, would it make it cleaner? Our initial assessment is, it would not," she says. Besides, the EPA must factor in costs: Unlike most Superfund sites, the Duwamish River lacks a single or even a few clearly responsible parties whom the EPA can push to cover the huge bill; instead, 325 businesses have been notified that they could be on the hook. Still, the bulk will fall to the Lower Duwamish Waterway Group, which has already spent more than $100 million.

And as restoration progresses, hints of the Duwamish's ancestral wildness have flashed back like chinook swimming upstream: a glimpse of what could be. The Seaboard Lumber Mill site, for example, was once littered with old concrete chunks and puddles of oil. But after Seattle and King County completed a $5 million cleanup in 2001, it's now a park alive with great blue herons and bald eagles perched in Douglas firs planted in the 1990s. As vegetation crowds its shores, the park has become an important refuge for juvenile salmon, which need underwater root systems to hide in as they make their way to the sea.

Mike Merta, a relative newcomer who started the Duwamish Rowing Club three years ago and paddles the river several times a week, revels in the resilience of its wildlife: "We see harbor seals every time we go out. Sea lions. Bufflehead. Deer. Bald eagles. Obviously, there's a salmon run in the fall that is really alive despite everything that's occurred. It's been industrialized only the last 100 years. The salmon have been coming up here for millennia. Nobody told them."