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?
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.

Crosscut archive image.

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.

In 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added the last five miles of the Duwamish River to its list of Superfund sites and began planning to clean up the sediment that lines the river's bottom like a poisonous quilt. Limited dredging has already started, but the main 10-year, $305 million push will begin after the EPA releases its final cleanup order later this year.

The EPA hopes to improve conditions for wildlife, scrub the river's few beaches and ultimately make its fish, crabs and clams safe enough to eat again. And the agency's plans – to remove enough toxic mud to fill 29 Olympic-size pools and seal a swath of river bottom 18 football fields long under sand and rock – will indeed keep much of the contamination out of the food chain. But in the end, the Duwamish may stand not as a shining example of how to right environmental wrongs, but of how difficult, even impossible, it is to do so when their root causes have as much to do with how we've engineered our everyday lives as with industrial fallout.

And the cleanup area's discrete boundaries exclude a major ongoing source of pollution, one that will prove extraordinarily difficult to control: The thriving, bustling city itself.

When Col. Isaac Ebey first paddled up the Duwamish with Native guides on a surveying trip in 1850, he was struck by the dark alluvial soil deposited along its shores. "The river meanders through rich bottom land," he wrote, "not heavily timbered, with here and there a beautiful plain of unrivaled fertility." He followed a tributary called the Black River until he reached an enormous body of water he found so clear and beautiful he named it after Switzerland's Lake Geneva.

Since renamed Lake Washington and folded in the city's arms, today it's best known for its tony marinas, verdant parks and waterfront estates belonging to people like Microsoft's Bill Gates and Amazon's Jeff Bezos. But even if his canoe could dodge the shipping barges that now swarm the Duwamish, Col. Ebey would have trouble finding this scenic spot today, at least by his original route.

In an ambitious project designed to ease flooding and improve navigation and shipping, the river was straightened. About 20 million cubic yards of mud and sand were removed, and 13 miles of the lower Duwamish were reduced to five. The effort cut the river off from most of its tributaries, including the Black, which vanished completely in 1916, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a shipping canal connecting Lake Washington to Puget Sound a few miles north. When the canal opened, the lake's level dropped 8.8 feet in a single day, well below the Black's intake, and bled the short river out.

"That was quite a day for the white people at least," Duwamish tribal member Joseph Moses told a newspaper reporter shortly after the Black disappeared. "The waters just went down, down, until our landing and canoes stood dry. There were pools, of course, and the fish trapped in them. People came from miles around, laughing and hollering and stuffing fish into gunny sacks."

Today, only the Green River feeds the Duwamish, making the two essentially one. You can buy blue jeans at the mall that rose from the Black's former riverbed. Comparing the Duwamish to the other clear, rushing rivers flowing from the Northwest's aptly named Cascade Mountains, poet Richard Hugo wrote in 1961 that it had become "Midwestern in the heat," its curves "slow and sick." But businessmen came in droves to set up mills and shipyards. Boeing built its first planes on the banks of the river, and by World War II was operating a 1.7 million square-foot manufacturing plant that turned out nearly 7,000 B-17 bombers.

The pollution quickly followed. In 1945, researchers commissioned by the state of Washington found that Boeing was dumping 500 pounds of acetylene generator waste and 200 to 250 pounds of "highly toxic" solution into the river every day, including coolants rich in polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a new class of chemicals. A nearby forge that manufactured nuts and bolts dumped its used oil into an on-site sand pit. Once the sand was saturated, the oil would begin washing into the river – toxic contamination, saved for a rainy day.

PCB use was on the rise locally for other reasons, too: In addition to their cooling powers, PCBs make paint last longer and caulk seal better. "For high-end construction, companies would buy the best product on the shelf," says David Schuchardt, the Duwamish River program leader with Seattle Public Utilities, which is charged with trying to stem the chemical's flow into the river. "The best product on the shelf contained PCBs."

Still, industry's toll took time to reveal itself, says Marianne Clark, a diminutive 62-year-old who keeps her gray-blonde hair in a loose ponytail. Clark has lived much of her life near the Duwamish. Her grandparents bought one of the first houses built on the former riverbed after the Duwamish was straightened – an A-frame in a neighborhood called Georgetown, where Clark now lives. As children in the '50s, Clark and her brother caught salmon, perch and what she calls "junk fish," bottom-feeders and the like, and ate them all. "We would even swim in that river."

But today, she won't even let her dog set foot in the Duwamish: It stinks, and when the water's low, the mudflats have the iridescent sheen of oil. Some 41 toxic substances, including arsenic, mercury and lead, lace its riverbed at levels that exceed state standards. PCBs –– banned in 1979 after they were revealed to be carcinogenic –– are by far the most pervasive. They can also suppress human immune function and cause learning deficits in children.

All the species in the river except salmon, which migrate from the ocean through the river corridor fast enough to avoid serious contamination, contain PCB levels that exceed the state's threshold for safe consumption in any amount. English sole found here, for example, contain 10 times the state's permitted PCB levels, meaning that even if the contamination were cut to a tenth of what it is now, the state would still consider the fish dangerous to eat. "Crab butter," which comes from the Dungeness crab's digestive tract and is considered a delicacy by many of Seattle's Asian immigrants, has similarly staggering levels.

Residents of Georgetown and South Park, the neighborhoods that flank today's Superfund Site on either side of the river, began fighting the area's marginalization in the 1960s. Seattle's City Council was trying to rezone the two neighborhoods as an industrial area, evicting people from their homes in favor of yet more industry. BJ Cummings, a longtime advocate with the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, calls the city's decision "a very real attempt to (completely) dispossess people of this river." Four thousand people marched on City Hall, ultimately scuttling the effort. It was a subtle shift in the Duwamish's fortunes, Cummings says: People had begun "reclaiming the river for themselves. Not taking it back from industry, but starting to share it again."

Then, beginning in the 1970s, a Vietnam veteran named John Beal surprised everyone by showing that reclamation was still possible. Beal, who had heart problems, had been told he had only a few months to live, so, hoping to leave a positive legacy, he adopted a little urban Duwamish tributary named Hamm Creek that had been filled in with garbage. Over the next three decades, Beal pulled trash out of the stream, removed pipes that diverted water underground so it could flow in the daylight, and restored native plants. By the time he died in 2006, a healthy salmon run had returned.

Clark and her neighbors, meanwhile, have planted native vegetation along the Duwamish since the 1990s, trying to help restore the few small patches of natural riverbank that still exist. But she says it was always a struggle to get the rest of the city — environmentally conscious as it is — to care about the river. As a result, work on behalf of the Duwamish remained mostly piecemeal until 2000, when the city, King County, the Port of Seattle and Boeing learned that the EPA was considering the area for its Superfund list and got together to create a cleanup plan, hoping to avoid the bureaucratic fuss — and stigma — of a designation.

There was no doubt that the river's pollution was severe enough to warrant federal oversight and cleanup funds, but the group hoped to convince the EPA they could handle it on their own. The EPA didn't buy it.

The Superfund listing brought more attention to the river's plight, Clark says. And as part of the cleanup, the EPA helped create and fund the river's first and only devoted advocacy group, the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, to give the poor communities living on its banks a say — sort of like a public defender in court, paid by the government to argue against its own prosecutors. The coalition has fought fiercely for the river, and the residents along its banks, ever since: "We're the ones who made a ton of fucking money off of Puget Sound," coordinator James Rassmussen told one local blog last year. "Seattle became Seattle on the back of the Duwamish River. It's time to pay that back."

Crosscut archive image.South Park is a vibrant neighborhood whose summertime streets are given over to masked wrestling matches known as Lucha Libre. On a Saturday afternoon, you might stumble on a Vietnamese barbecue in an unnamed park. The Duwamish Tribe, which has fought for federal recognition for years, still has a home here in a 6,000-square-foot longhouse that serves as events center, museum, gift shop and tribal headquarters.

At right: Native American fishermen check their nets on the Duwamish. Photo: Amy Dobrowolsky

In one block, you might see a small totem pole, a Latino counseling service and a cherished dive bar where a pint of Rainier still costs $2.50.

Fifty-five percent of South Park's residents are minorities — a stark contrast to the surrounding city, which is 70 percent white. American Indians make up 1.9 percent of the neighborhood population, Vietnamese and other Asian nationalities, 15 percent, and Hispanics, 37 percent. This means that the effects of the river's pollution are felt disproportionately by Seattle's minority community — both the city's oldest inhabitants and its most recent immigrants.

That's why, on a bright summer day, Peter Quenguyen is charging from group to group at a picnic on a dusty patch of South Park land, shaking hands, hugging people and cracking jokes about his own small stature. As part of the Superfund process, the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition and the EPA use gatherings like this and liaisons like Quenguyen to inform local residents about both the contaminated fish and the river cleanup. A giant pot of beef stew boils over open flames as we nosh fresh watermelon. A woman offers me a drink, then laughs: "Don't worry, this isn't Duwamish water!"

"A lot of people from Vietnam, they escaped from the riverside," Quenguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant, tells me. "Most of them are from a fishing family. They like being by a river." But they often lack information about the risks posed by Duwamish fish, or else choose to ignore them –– either unwilling to sacrifice tradition or too hungry to consider long-term consequences, he explains. There are also language barriers, and the fact that the Duwamish, dirty as it is, still looks better than many rivers in developing countries, where pollution is more clearly signaled by, say, the smell and sight of raw sewage.

The challenges reach beyond the local Asian population. On a fishing pier festooned with glaring yellow warning signs in eight languages telling people not to eat any species other than salmon, I find a Hispanic man sipping a Budweiser and using a spindly line with 10 hooks to draw tiny, bottom-feeding perch from the water. He hands each catch to his young son, who laughs as the still-wriggling creatures slip through his small fingers onto the wooden planks of the dock. The man tells me in Spanish, through a translator, that he lives close by and fishes often; just the other week, he was fined for catching salmon without a license. The perch, he says, are delicious fried and eaten whole.

Such fishermen are a common sight along the Duwamish, and the local ethnic communities consume a lot of fish. A survey conducted by the EPA, for example, found the average Southeast Asian diet consisted of 51.6 grams of fish per day — or about three 7-ounce filets of non-salmon fish per week — nearly seven times the average consumed by the general public.

But how much of that comes from the Duwamish is unknown. Survey after survey has been frustrated by small sample sizes, or the locals' reluctance to discuss their dietary habits. Many simply don't know where their fish come from: Researchers who surveyed 1,005 King County immigrants in 2011 noted that some residents purchased seafood from ad hoc stands with mysterious sourcing. Only two people surveyed even knew the Duwamish by name.

It's also unknown how the pollution is affecting local health. But it certainly isn't helping: The number of South Park residents "in poor health" is 40 percent higher in neighborhoods near the Duwamish than in King County as a whole, according to county health officials, thanks in part to rampant poverty and environmental issues such as air and soil pollution. The rate of hospitalizations for childhood asthma is twice the county average.

Meanwhile, Duwamish-area residents on average die 13 years earlier than residents of Laurelhurst, the city's healthiest neighborhood, according to a recent analysis of census data by the University of Washington and the EPA. Ironically, Laurelhurst, which boasts a median income twice Seattle's average, is located where, a century ago, the new shipping canal was connected to Lake Washington, dooming the Black.

It's a stereotypically lovely Seattle neighborhood, with Craftsman-style homes, flower gardens that spill onto the sidewalks and quiet lanes where Priuses hum by. Green recycling dumpsters outnumber the black ones meant for garbage. Walking here, it's hard to imagine that the Duwamish River shares the same area code. "This garden city can seem benign," author Matthew Klingle noted in his environmental history of Seattle. "But to the residents of the Duwamish Valley, it hardly seems benign."

From the air, the Duwamish appears as an unnaturally straight blue-green line that slices south from Elliot Bay, just across the water from downtown Seattle, neatly bisecting the narrow strip of land between Puget Sound and the gangly north-south reach of Lake Washington. Compared to the wilder sound, what remains of the river is glassy calm, imprisoned between shorelines that host a jarring collage of steel and concrete.

Wood pilings rise from the water, blanketed in gray-black barnacles. Cement storm drain outlets with metal gratings like crooked teeth occasionally open like mouths amid the mossy monotony of riprap. In the morning sun, cement plants with domed roofs look vaguely like mosques, and giant brightly colored cranes glimmer as they load and unload shipping containers in the endless cycle of global trade.

These days, barges with dredges comb the cloudy water alongside the usual array of tugboats and shipping barges. They represent the first wave of the Superfund cleanup, dipping their buckets like freakishly monstrous mallards, and emerging dripping with goo and dangling tortured scraps of metal. The so-called Lower Duwamish Waterway Group — the port, city, county and Boeing — is already removing sediment from five parts of the river that are considered so contaminated that officials decided not to wait.

But the bulk of the cleanup has yet to begin. The EPA proposes to dredge up 790,000 cubic yards of contaminated muck from 84 acres and dispose of it in a permitted landfill in eastern Washington, 250 miles away. It will "cap" another 24 acres of river bottom, burying it under several feet of sand and gravel to prevent contamination from continuing to enter the water. But the agency will leave most of the Superfund site — 256 acres — alone, to undergo a process called "monitored natural recovery," which amounts to seeing how much contamination the river can flush from its own system.

If the agency's modeling proves correct, EPA project lead Allison Hiltner says PCB levels will have dropped by 90 percent 20 years from now, vastly improving the health of both the river and its fish.

The EPA considered a range of cleanup options, the most expensive of which would have cost an estimated $810 million and involved the removal of 3.9 million cubic yards of polluted river sediment. But Hiltner says that pollution reduction dropped off sharply after the process hit the $305 million mark. "If we dredged the rest of the river, would it make it cleaner? Our initial assessment is, it would not," she says.

Besides, the EPA must factor in costs: Unlike most Superfund sites, the Duwamish River lacks a single or even a few clearly responsible parties whom the EPA can push to cover the huge bill; instead, 325 businesses have been notified that they could be on the hook. Still, the bulk will fall to the Lower Duwamish Waterway Group, which has already spent more than $100 million.

And as restoration progresses, hints of the Duwamish's ancestral wildness have flashed back like chinook swimming upstream: a glimpse of what could be. The Seaboard Lumber Mill site, for example, was once littered with old concrete chunks and puddles of oil. But after Seattle and King County completed a $5 million cleanup in 2001, it's now a park alive with great blue herons and bald eagles perched in Douglas firs planted in the 1990s. As vegetation crowds its shores, the park has become an important refuge for juvenile salmon, which need underwater root systems to hide in as they make their way to the sea.

Mike Merta, a relative newcomer who started the Duwamish Rowing Club three years ago and paddles the river several times a week, revels in the resilience of its wildlife: "We see harbor seals every time we go out. Sea lions. Bufflehead. Deer. Bald eagles. Obviously, there's a salmon run in the fall that is really alive despite everything that's occurred. It's been industrialized only the last 100 years. The salmon have been coming up here for millennia. Nobody told them."

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."


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