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The Duwamish: River of no return?

Washington's most polluted river is about to become the site of a huge cleanup effort. Will it be enough?

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."

The men shake hands, and Jeffers returns to his pickup. "The message we try to get across is, ‘We're spending all this money cleaning up the [river],' " he says. " ‘We don't want to pollute it again.' "

Seattle is proud of its green reputation. The city recycles more trash than it puts in the landfill and is within sight of two national parks. Yet the Duwamish, a once-vibrant river that historically hosted at least 17 fishing villages belonging to the eponymous Duwamish Tribe, along with the city's first white immigrants, is one of Washington state's most polluted rivers.

Photo: Michael Holden

The Duwamish helped Seattle become the Pacific Northwest's economic powerhouse, its fertile soils and harbor access the first seeds from which the city's prosperity grew. But that prosperity has nearly killed the river. For more than a century, heavy industry has pumped it full of carcinogens and metals. Subdivisions and low-rises sprawl over its former meanders; its immediate watershed is now a 32-square-mile expanse of paved urbanization, its tributary streams replaced with storm drains that swallow whatever garbage and chemicals the rain washes from industry lots, businesses like David's and sidewalks and roadways. It's hidden so well among the scrapyards and shipping terminals that many residents don't even know it exists. On maps, it's marked simply as a "waterway" – nothing more than a transit corridor where barges glide from factories to the Pacific Ocean.

These days, the Duwamish's fish are too toxic for human consumption. Yellow warning signs line its shores; even playing on its few beaches carries a health risk. Yet fishing continues. The industrial buildup that poisoned the river also made the land around it cheap to live on, attracting immigrants from fishing cultures who either don't understand the pollution or ignore it. Some are simply so poor they're willing to risk cancer for a square meal.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jul 7, 12:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Another Great Article, but an error or two. You state you can see Two National Parks when you can actually 4 National Parks:
Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park
Mount Rainier National Park
North Cascades National Park Service Complex
Olympic National Park

Taximan

Posted Mon, Jul 7, 2:26 p.m. Inappropriate

I think I'll give the author the benefit of doubt on these since you can actually see the Klondike NHP building from the Duwamish nor can you see any peak in the North Cascades Park (without a helicopter) from down along the Duwamish.

Good article though - thanks.

Treker

Posted Mon, Jul 7, 2:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Opps - meant "can't see" Klondike or NCNP

Treker

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 7:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Save the fish. So illegal immigrants can catch them out of season.

The Dems professed environmental policy is incompatible with their immigration policy.

BlueLight

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 2:14 p.m. Inappropriate

I have been told (although not recently) that the migrating salmon caught in the Duwamish were safe to eat but that relatively immobile bottom fish were not. Was that in the article? I didn't see it. In discussing the relative safety of eating Duwamish fish it would have been helpful to have some sort of measure of the risk; for example, is it riskier to eat 6 oz. of Duwamish cod each day than it is to drink six beers and eat some twinkies and potato chips? it's good to know it is unhealthy but how unhealthy, you know, compared to what we normally eat.

kieth

Posted Tue, Jul 8, 4:40 p.m. Inappropriate

So, six beers, twinkies and potato chips is what you normally eat? :)

Posted Thu, Jul 10, 3:23 p.m. Inappropriate

"6 oz. of Duwamish cod"? No such fish.

It's the bottom dwelling fish that accumulate the toxins. You sir are correct that migrating species of Salmon aren't in the Duwamish long enough to become tainted. Still though cleaning up the mess is a "good idea", it's just that much of the toxins are in the muck in the bottom and removing the muck without just mixing it into the river and thus out into Elliott Bay is difficult and expensive. The question is, with limited dollars to clean up leftover industrial waste, is this the best use for it.

GaryP

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