Duwamish River to get $342 million more for cleanup

The EPA's order aims to undo decades of industrial pollution to Seattle's only river.

 

Kids who were born the year Seattle's Lower Duwamish Waterway was designated a Superfund site are now approaching high school. If everything goes according to plan, the federally ordered river cleanup will be finished by the time they are well into their 30s.

So it's hard to describe anything in this sluggish process as “momentous,” but Tuesday certainly fit that bill, with the release of the Environmental Protection Agency's final cleanup order for Seattle's only river.

View over the Duwamish River in Seattle. Photograph from Flickr user Brewbooks.
The order is the EPA's prescription for returning the Duwamish to health after more than a century of the river-equivalent of a life of hard drinking and chain smoking: In the last 100 years, the Duwamish has been choked off from most of its headwaters and straightened from 13 miles to five. It was used for decades as an industrial waste dump for corporations like Boeing, which was founded along its banks and will foot a significant portion of the cleanup bill. Today, the river is so saturated with industrial pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyl that toxicity in some fish surpasses the Washington State threshold for safe human consumption by a factor of 10. Cutting through south Seattle en route to the Puget Sound, the river has long been a glaring mar on the city’s proud reputation as a clean and green metropolis.

Boeing and other major polluters — which include the city of Seattle itself — have already spent more than $150 million on cleaning the river since it was designated a Superfund site in 2001. Tuesday's order adds another $342 million to the planned work, though that cost will be shared by hundreds of entities that have contributed to the pollution over the decades. The figure is almost $40 million higher than initially proposed by the EPA, since the agency decided more toxic mud needed to be removed up from the river-bottom. Nearly 1 million cubic yards of poisonous sludge will be scooped up, put onto barges and trucks and hauled to a storage site in Eastern Washington. Other toxic mud will be left in the river but “capped” to prevent contamination from reaching the water; still more will be buried in sand. Active cleanup of the river will take seven years, after which the EPA will monitor the river for another 10, in hopes that more pollution will naturally flush from its system.

The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, a feisty activist group that had lobbied the federal government for more dredging to be included in the final plan, applauded the EPA for increasing the amount of polluted sediment that would be removed from the river.

But as I reported for High County News in June, even a vastly restored Duwamish will carry a sober message about what happens to rivers when the land around them is heavily developed. Even as old pollution is removed from the river bottom, the waterway's heavily industrialized and urbanized valley will still act as a giant catch basin for hydrocarbons and industrial chemicals. That's because many of Seattle's urban and industrial stormdrains still runoff into the river untreated. Efforts to control this sort of pollution are underway, but no one believes that the Duwamish can be completely quarantined from the everyday pollutants used in the world around it.

Dennis McLerran, administrator of EPA Region 10, which oversees the cleanup, reiterated on Tuesday what regulators have been saying for years: No matter how much is spent restoring the Duwamish, the fish that live in the water will never be clean enough to eat without restriction. (As is, the state health department has put all resident Duwamish fish and shellfish under a “Do Not Eat” advisory, meaning no fish should be consumed from the river.)“This is an urban river. An urban river, even with the best kinds of controls, will have some contamination from historic pollution and ongoing sources,” McLerran said. “We think this will be a much safer place to recreate. But it will not be a place where unlimited amounts of fish will be able to be consumed.”

A man hauling in a crab pot at T-105 Park in Seattle. Photograph by Daniel Person.
View of the river as it feeds into Elliott Bay on the Puget Sound. Photograph by Daniel Person.

That's significant — and kind of heartbreaking — because the flip side of the Duwamish being an urban river is that it poses an attractive fishing spot for those who live around it; Seattle's poorest neighborhoods are within walking distance. One man catching Dungeness crab from the river last year told me he knew that crabs in the Duwamish were polluted, but said he checked whether they were black or not before eating them, betraying a basic misunderstanding of chemical pollution, since fish don’t have to be discolored to be contaminated.

The cleanup should make consuming a limited amount of crab OK. But even that is many years away.

“We're still looking at a 20 year period,” said BJ Cummings, development and policy advisor with the Cleanup Coalition. “That's a whole other generation of families growing up with poison fish on the table.”

Daniel Person is a contributor to High Country News and writes from the Seattle area.

High Country News Classifieds
  • BUSINESS SUPPORT ASSISTANT (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time business support assistant to provide...
  • SOCIAL MEDIA AND DIGITAL ADVERTISING SPECIALIST
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening for a full-time Social Media and Digital Advertising Specialist. This position...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...
  • RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking an individual to fill the Regular Full-Time position of Resident Operations Assistant for Technology, Hospitality, Gardening, and...