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River of No Return
  • This article by Daniel Person originally appeared in the Jul 01, 2014 issue of High Country News.
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Topic: Climate & Pollution     Department: Feature     Comments: 0

NON-SUBSCRIBER PREVIEW

River of no return

Seattle’s Duwamish has been straightened, dredged and heavily polluted. Can a Superfund cleanup bring it back to life?
News: Jul 01, 2014
by Daniel Person

On the kind of sunny August day that rain-soaked Seattle lives for, Michael Jeffers pulls his white Ford Ranger into a dirt lot surrounding a cinderblock cube of a building in the city's Mount Baker neighborhood. The anonymous garage is nominally a car wash, with a hose and some sponges but no electricity. Standing water drips from oil drums clustered in the back alongside car batteries under ragged tarps. "This could be interesting," Jeffers says wryly as he climbs from his truck. "There have been problems with drugs here in the past."

Jeffers isn't the kind of cop who looks for drugs, though. The lean, gray-haired 53-year-old, who wears a smile like it's part of his uniform, is a stormwater inspector trying to help Seattle get a handle on the stuff that gets swept into storm drains by the region's famously heavy and frequent rain. All those little spills add up to big pollution problems in the Duwamish River, four miles away.

Today, he's already spoken to Russian mechanics and a "bad-credit-no-credit-no-problem" car dealer. Here, he finds a Vietnamese man, who explains in broken English that he does oil changes and takes used sludge to an auto-parts store for disposal. Satisfied, Jeffers gives the man an urban hydrology pamphlet, which he only glances at briefly. Just as Jeffers completes a circuit of the property, the owner, a tall man named David, arrives on a green Huffy bicycle decorated with a dreamcatcher. "There was an inspector here just last week!" he exclaims before Jeffers can say hello. "We ain't using no chemicals!"

Jeffers explains calmly that if hydrocarbons and other chemicals washed from vehicles run directly into the storm drain, they end up in the river, and David could be fined. Same with those oil drums and batteries. In reality, fines are rare, Jeffers later tells me, because the city would rather help businesses comply: "It's just a matter of pushing them in the right direction." Jeffers recommends that David build a dirt berm to direct runoff into a sewer, feeding it into a wastewater plant for treatment. David begins to relax: "It's just right now, we're barely getting business," he confides. "Times are tough."

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Duwamish sludge, from source to sink Duwamish sludge, from source to sink
 by Eric Wagner

A close look at ‘Seattle’s toilet’

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