Seattle’s Duwamish River Valley is taking its health into its own hands
Nature and commerce converge on Seattle's Duwamish River. Credit: Yasha Rohwer
When a federal agency cleans up a Superfund site, should it be required to improve the environmental health burdens of the people who live near it? Twelve years ago the EPA declared Seattle’s only river, the Duwamish, to be one of the nation’s most toxic waste sites. This spring the agency released a proposed cleanup plan.
The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition says the plan doesn’t go far enough. “EPA has done a traditional human health risk assessment,” says BJ Cummings with the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition. “What it does is it looks at PCB levels for example and how much that contributes to cancer risk, but it hasn’t looked at all exposures and vulnerabilities together. That’s what the cumulative analysis does.”
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The Cleanup Coalition and Just Health Action released their own report in late March that found that the cumulative health impacts in neighborhoods next to the river, like South Park and Georgetown, are the highest of all zip codes studied citywide. The report looked at exposure to toxins and noise pollution as well as socioeconomic factors: minority status, life expectancy, vulnerability to illness and the absence of a healthy built environment, such as parks and trees.
Residents in the 98108 zipcode, they found, have a life expectancy of 73.3 years — eight years shorter than the Seattle and King County average of 81.5 years. “Really, what the cumulative health impacts analysis for the Duwamish Valley tells us is the context in which we’re making decisions about how to prevent future exposures and how to best improve people’s health with all kinds of actions that we’re taking,” says Cummings.
South Seattle’s Duwamish Valley has long been referred to as a community with environmental injustice, one with disproportionately high environmental health burdens and fewer positive environmental health benefits than the rest of Seattle.
Back in 1994, then-President Bill Clinton issued an Environmental Justice Executive Order requiring the EPA to address the high environmental risks borne by low income populations and communities of color. Environmental justice became a mandate for federal agencies, with “environment” broadly defined to include ecological, physical, social, political and economic environments.
“From a health equity perspective or from a fairness perspective, we should all have the opportunity to live up to our full potential,” explains Just Health Action's Linn Gould, the principal investigator of the group's recent Duwamish report. “And the community that lives here doesn’t. And they deserve that right just like everyone else.”
The report makes multiple recommendations to the EPA of ways to improve environmental health in the Duwamish Valley. To kick-start that effort, the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition awarded grants to five local organizations. One is to plant trees in a part of South Park not eligible for trees from the city, because it’s unincorporated King County.
Cari Simson with Urban Systems Design, a consultant for the project, says the trees will provide a huge benefit because they filter air and trap pollutants. “They also reduce the heat island effect, which we feel down here in the Duwamish Basin a lot, because the heat just builds up over the day because there’s so much pavement,” she explains.
The tree planting coincides with the neighborhood’s first roadside rain garden project. Do rain gardens improve environmental health? No question, says South Park resident Ahylshawndra Means. “Primarily it traps the gunk that would go straight into the Duwamish. All the runoff is going to stop here.” A sand and compost mix added to rain gardens traps polluted runoff and keeps it from washing into waterways.
As for environmental justice, Means says it’s a way to right some wrongs. “Particularly to neighborhoods like this because they 'didn’t matter,' the people who lived here didn’t have enough money to make themselves heard," she says. "It just seems like OK, it’s time.” Cari Simson says all the storm drains in this area of South Park, called “The Sliver by the River,” dump directly into the Duwamish. “If oil, grease, paint, fertilizer goes on this road, it goes right down the drain — whish — into the Duwamish.”
But with neighbors on board, grant money beginning to flow and the county set to build a new treatment plant for uncontrolled sewer overflows, one of South Park’s environmental health problems, storm water pollution, is getting some long-denied attention.
The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition and Just Health Action say it’s only the beginning. The community’s health priorities also include air pollution, soil contamination in yards and gardens, water pollution and increasing public green space, among others.
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