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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And yet even with all the good news, it remains doubtful whether the Duwamish's fish will ever be safe enough to eat regularly. Despite the efforts of state and local agencies, new pollution will continue to enter the river from the dense urban area beyond the Superfund site. It flows from sources as small and scattered as residential driveways and as major as a large cement plant that was cited by the state this March for releasing "huge clouds of dusty solid particulate, which was deposited on area roofs, vehicles, yards and other structures." Every year, about 100,000 tons of new pollution-laden sediments enter the Duwamish from the Green River and city storm drains and settle to the river's floor. In 2010, for example, Seattle estimates 190 million gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater entered the city's waterways; the stormwater alone carried 8,200 tons of toxic metals and volatile chemicals. Much of that ran into the Duwamish.

From the outset, the state Department of Ecology, in partnership with King County and Seattle, was tasked with figuring out how to keep as much new pollution as possible out of the river. Together, the agencies have spent more than $100 million on cleaning up highly contaminated areas in the Duwamish basin, inspecting businesses across the watershed, and tracking down old storm drains that might harbor toxic sediment dating back to before PCB and other poisons were banned. But the scope of the problem is daunting. "There's probably about 10,000 buildings that have the potential to have PCB material on them," says Dan Cargill, source control project manager with Ecology, which is already cleaning up 18 heavily contaminated sites along the Duwamish and Green rivers. Seattle, meanwhile, plans to spend a half-billion dollars between 2015 and 2025 to reduce the amount of untreated sewage and stormwater entering the Duwamish and other urban waters, though the details have yet to be determined.

The EPA's Hiltner says the agencies' combined efforts will vastly reduce the risk of eating Duwamish fish, but adds that the river is unlikely to become clean enough for regular fish consumption. The EPA's best guess is that the Duwamish will still contain PCB levels 20 times higher than the cleanest portions of Puget Sound, mandating severe restrictions on eating its fish. Eating most Duwamish fish more than three times a month would still pose a health risk, says Hiltner. And even one English sole would still be too dangerous.

That aspect of the river may be as dead as its meanders, as dead as the tributary Black. Blue-collar industry around the river is still thriving, though, employing 100,000 people with an annual economic impact of $13.5 billion. "Seattle's not going away," Hiltner concludes. And the Duwamish is "still going to be in the industrial corridor. There isn't a good answer." Even if Seattle didn't exist, PCBs are now in the atmosphere. Even rain itself contains traces, adds Cargill. "We're going to get that river as clean as we can."

But anything short of near-pristine isn't good enough, argues the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, whose activists are sick of hearing about what can't be done. The group has many problems with the draft cleanup proposal, but its biggest concern is that nothing in the plan will get those 100,000 tons of sediment washing into the river any cleaner, which allows the EPA to accept that pollution as inevitable. The coalition argues that the EPA shouldn't leave the problem to agencies with considerably less political clout and fewer financial resources.

The EPA could, argues Cummings, force Seattle to collect its stormwater and treat it before it reaches the Duwamish, essentially insulating the river from the city. A limited amount of such treatment could be part of Seattle's $500 million clean-water plan. Cargill, however, whose agency has also requested that the EPA include a plan for new pollution in its final decision, doubts that treatment on that scale is practical because it would involve treating billions of gallons of water.

But even if that's true, Cummings counters, it doesn't mean the EPA can't do everything possible to clean the river more thoroughly. "The Duwamish River has been a sacrifice zone for a long time," adds Rassmussen. "If the wisest, richest, most educated city on the Puget Sound doesn't show the leadership and clean its river, nobody is going to do any more than we are doing. What's proposed right now is not going to do anything. It's like saying, ‘This is just the way it is. We can't do it.' "

If the Superfund cleanup fails to make the river clean enough to be safe for human health, the EPA must do one of two things: Order a new cleanup or grant a waiver that states, essentially, that the river and its fish are as clean as they're going to get. If that happens, then the agency will have to rely on other measures to keep people safe from Duwamish pollution, mainly by preventing them from eating its fish. But even if that's unavoidable, the EPA noted last year, it would create a fundamental injustice by placing "the burden of addressing environmental contamination's health effects on those affected, rather than those responsible for the risk."

That's a thorny issue, especially since fishing remains central to so many residents' culture and diet. To work around it, the EPA plans to create a community group as part of the official cleanup that will study ways to protect people from Duwamish fish without attacking their culture or leaving them hungry; suggestions include driving South Park anglers to clean fishing spots, or setting up "fish swaps" where people can trade "dirty" fish and crabs for healthy seafood.

Everyone involved in the cleanup intends to keep educating people about the dangers of eating Duwamish fish. But it remains challenging, since the pollution is invisible to the naked eye, and its health effects are more insidious than immediate.

On a hot August day, Cambodians crowd a tiny park wedged next to an HVAC shop. One by one, they drop crab pots baited with fish heads and raw chicken into the river's murky gray waters. As the men and women wait, they share food and sip Coors. After about 10 minutes, the traps are retrieved, each packed with grappling crustaceans – most too small to keep, though a few measure up. There's also an eel, which a young man uses to torment a group of squeamish girls in miniskirts.

One man shows me cellphone pictures of a huge Dungeness crab he caught last week. He says he can easily tell whether or not a crab is contaminated. If it looks clean, he explains, it has come from the less-polluted Puget Sound. "If it's black, I throw it back."

Daniel Person has written for newspapers along the I-90 corridor, from Hardin, Montana, to Seattle. He lives with his wife, Tara, in eastern Washington.

This story has been adapted and expanded from a piece that appeared in the Seattle Weekly on Sept. 11, 2013. It was made possible with support from the Kenney Brothers Foundation.