Can we really 'restore' the Duwamish, Seattle's industrial river?

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Duwamish River

An osprey glides above the river, while down on the water, a crane lifts piles of scrap metal from a barge, a conveyor takes gypsum to shore from a Maltese-flagged bulk carrier, and stacked shipping containers, topped by a full-sized tour bus, rise high above the deck of another barge bound soon for Alaska.

The osprey no doubt plucks fish from the river and carries them home to its young. Some humans do the same. They probably shouldn't. You want PCBs, pthalates, mercury? They're all here.

This is Seattle's industrial river, the Duwamish, It is soon to be the target of a $342-million Superfund cleanup, which will build on what have already been years of significant efforts to restore the river. Even with a Superfund cleanup, however, there are limits to what can be done, and to understand that, it helps to consider the natural history of the river, and its human history, continuing to the present day.

The polluted modern waterway is a far cry from the meandering river that Seattle pioneers found here in 1851, the one from which natives had harvested fish and clams for millennia. If you found a clam near the river mouth now, you'd be well advised to throw it back. The modern Duwamish has been shaped by the pursuit of profit.

Not even the water level is truly natural. Look at a wall of dark sediment rising from the water. A thin green line of vegetation parallels the river partway up. Port of Seattle environmental program manager George Blomberg explains that everything above the green line represents height added by fill, and everything below the green line represents the lowering of the river level by dredging. The green line itself is what's left of the original bank.

Crosscut archive image.The river once carried nearly four times as much water as it does now. The Green River, which rises in the Cascades near Stampede Pass, met the White, which rose near Mount Rainier, then kept flowing north to what is now Tukwila. There, just past the tongue of land currently occupied by the Starfire soccer complex, the Green joined the Black, which drained Lake Washington at the current site of Renton. The Black and the Green combined to form the Duwamish, which meandered through a broad flood plain and then an estuary that stretched from the high ground in West Seattle to the high ground of Beacon Hill. The Port of Seattle estimates that originally, the estuary "included approximately 1,450 acres of intertidal sand and mud substrate, nearly 1,300 acres of intertidal marsh, and approximately 1,450 acres of tidal swamp (or forested wetland)."

Then, people started replumbing the watershed. After the White jumped its banks and joined the Puyallup during an early-20th-century flood, local farmers did enough earthwork to keep it there. When the Lake Washington Ship Canal was completed in 1916, the lake level dropped 9 feet, and Lake Washington water started flowing out through the canal, rather than through the Black. The Cedar River had already been diverted from the Black into the lake. With no water flowing in, the Black dried up.

Now, the Green just changes its name to Duwamish in Tukwila. Upstream, the Howard Hanson Dam — and a network of levees — keeps the Green from flooding Auburn and the rest of its former floodplain, and keeps salmon from swimming all the way upstream. Completed in 1961, the dam made possible the transformation of the Kent Valley from agriculture to warehousing and urban development.

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Credit: EPA

Around the start of the last century, while the Duwamish's tributaries were going elsewhere, people started filling in the wetlands and dredging the channel. Seattle's major-league sports stadiums, Starbucks' world headquarters, the south Seattle industrial area, the trendier parts of SoDo – they have all been built on fill. At the river's mouth, Harbor Island was created by dumping dredge spoils within bulkheads, then adding soil from the regrades of Seattle hills. Terminal 5, where Shell's offshore drilling rig was moored last spring, is also made of fill.

The river stopped meandering, too. In the early teens of the 20th century, while the Corps was digging the ship canal, a Duwamish Waterway Commission also dredged a straight channel through the river's old snaking course. The dredging left the lower Duwamish much shorter and deeper than the natural river had been.

The only hint of what used to be is visible just south of the West Seattle Bridge, where a loop of what was once a main channel to Elliot Bay curves from the straightened modern waterway around Kellogg Island. You can look across the meander to Kellogg Island from Herring House Park, where the last functioning sawmill in Seattle once stood. The site is named after a Duwamish village that stood nearby until the turn of the 20th century. Soil contaminated with lead, mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons has been hauled away, replaced by new intertidal habitat and salt marsh. You can follow paved paths through trees and tall brush, look up at a 5/8 replica skeleton of a halibut schooner, read interpretive signs that tell you the site was inhabited for at least 1,400 years.

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Credit: Google

Archaeologists have excavated a midden that was built up from the 7th to the start of the 18th century. The Duwamish people clammed and fished and fought along the river for a long, long time. In 1949, a daughter of mid-19th-century pioneers recalled Chief Seattle and other tribal members arriving at her family's home, across the river for dinner: "Chief Seattle, with his skin and furbedecked war canoe with its fifty paddlers came round the bend and sang one of their songs of friendship upon landing in front of the house." A modern Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center stands right across West Marginal Way from the park. (And yet . . . The federal government recently refused to recognize the Duwamish as an existing tribe. There was no question about the more distant history. The feds found, though, that the people asking for recognition were not distinct politically, socially or geographically, and that the current "tribe" had been deliberately established in 1925 as a voluntary membership association. The issue may ultimately be decided by a federal court.)

Boeing started beside another, now-vanished meander of the river, in the famous Red Barn — now at the Museum of Flight. Founder Bill Boeing originally bought the "barn" as a place in which to build himself a yacht. Then, he started building airplanes there. The company's recently demolished Plant 2, which stood across the river from the South Park Marina just south of the South Park Bridge, turned out nearly 7,000 B-17 bombers during World War II. Boeing buildings still stand near the river bank, along the stretch at which the incoming tide meets freshwater, above the ridge of rock known as the North Wind's Weir.

Bridges and trestles of various kinds have spanned the river mouth for generations. In the 1970s, automobile traffic still crossed the river on two low drawbridges built in the 1920s. Politicians wanted a new, higher bridge. The funding was all lined up but the project plunged into scandal — the chair of the House Transportation Committee wound up in federal prison — the state backed out, and the whole enterprise collapsed.

Then, in 1978, an 80-year-old Norwegian-born ship's pilot named Rolf Neslund steered a freighter into one of the low bridge supports, permanently jamming the drawbridge leaves in an up position. Washington's Sen. Warren Magnuson corralled all of one year's federal bridge replacement funds, and the current high bridge over the river opened in 1984.

In 1980, soon after Neslund's freighter wrecked the old bridge, a NOAA research group headed by Donald Malins announced that sediments in the mouth of the Duwamish were heavily contaminated with PCBs, chlorinated hydrocarbons, heavy metals and other toxic materials. Bottom-dwelling fish displayed unnatural percentages of liver lesions.

Not many people cared about the river back then. One who did was a Vietnam vet named John Beall . His story has been told many times: In 1978, a doctor told him he had only months to live. He went to the junk-filled, overgrown banks of a Duwamish tributary, Hamm Creek — which reminded him of Vietnam — to, as he put it, feel sorry for himself and cry. He decided that he'd use what little time he had left to make one place better. That place was Hamm Creek. He had old cars hauled out with cranes, took 12 tons of junk out himself, hauled in clean rocks from far upstream, planted vegetation that would take up toxins, planted fish eggs, and saw the creek revive. He lived another 18 years.

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The South Park Bridge, shown during its reconstruction last year, provides a connection across the river. Credit: King County

Beall became a voice for and symbol of the effort to clean up the river. He spoke up for the welfare of people who lived along the river, where they were in some cases exposed to high levels of toxins. One can, if one likes, find Beall's story a bit too inspirational — Matthew Klingle suggests in Emerald City, his 2007 environmental history of Seattle, that it's "easy to dismiss Beall's story as maudlin" — but you know, if that's not inspirational, what is?

Not that Beall's story mattered a whole lot to the City of Seattle when it — illegally — sited a fire training station in the headwaters of Hamm Creek. In 2005, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers notified the city that the $26 million facility had illegally been built on wetlands without a federal permit. As the Seattle Times reported at the time, the Corps had noticed only because of a tip from ... John Beall.

The Superfund designation for the Duwamish was a long time coming. At its mouth, Harbor Island, long the home of oil storage tanks and a shipyard, its soil laced with lead from a secondary smelter, became a Superfund site in 1983. The lower Duwamish was obviously heading in that direction by the turn of the new century, when Boeing, the port, King County and Seattle formed a Lower Duwamish Cleanup Group, signed a consent degree with the Environmental Protection Agency, and got an early start on removing contaminants. The official Superfund designation arrived in 2001.

Now, 14 years later, there's a cleanup plan and a price tag. The $342 million to be spent over seven years is over and above the more than $150 million already spent. And it's somewhat more than the Lower Duwamish cleanup partners wanted to spend. The process should make the Duwamish a much cleaner waterway. That's good. But let's face it: The river will never be fully "restored."

In May, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Cleanup Group members announced  the $342-million Superfund cleanup of the lower river. Under the consent decree,  group members have already plucked most of the low-hanging fruit, cleaning up many of the hot spots that would otherwise have been targeted under the Superfund.

What will spending another $342 million buy us?

The water itself is pretty clean by now. Sediments on the river bottom and the banks are another story. The main problem is "legacy contamination" — i.e., what's left over from the bad old days — and from some days not so old. When the river was added to the Superfund list, the EPA observed that "discharges from over 100 storm drains, combined sewer overflows (CSOs), and other outfalls" wound up in its waters. The river still collects runoff from a large and grimy area: Interstate 5 south of downtown Seattle, the streets of SoDo and Georgetown all drain into it. Under a 1991 consent decree, the city has already dredged up contaminated sediments beneath two storm drain/combined sewer overflow outfalls. In 2003 and 2004, the city removed more than 68,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the river bottom.

Some of the early dredging didn't go well. "As the dredging began," B.J. Cummings, community coordinator for the Duwamish Cleanup Coalition, told KUOW in 2007, "you could actually just watch the contaminated mud, shovel full after shovel full after shovel full, being spilled back into the river. And in the end, areas that had actually been determined to be clean before cleanup were dirty after." Long term, controlling stormwater pollution will involve building a new treatment plant along the river in South Park.

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Family canoes take part in a celebration of Duwamish's First Peoples near the Duwamish Longhouse in September. Credit: a href=

Unsurprisingly, living close to the Duwamish does not seem to be good for human health. "Mistreated and deserted," Matthew Klingle writes in Emerald City, “its man-made banks squeezing slack water to the sea, the Duwamish symbolizes the disharmonies of the Emerald City. The river, like the people who live along its banks, remains invisible to those pronouncing judgment on Seattle's future. It is an impure place."

In the 1950s, people in the Seattle area were famously worrying about the death of Lake Washington.  Metro was formed to pipe the sewage around the lake and ultimately out into Puget Sound. Originally, a lot went to an old primary treatment plant on the lower Duwamish: The stuff that was bad for Lake Washington was OK for the river.

"This garden city seems benign from the lofty heights of .... Queen Anne Hill," Klingle writes, "but to the residents of the Duwamish River valley, wedged between dumps, highways, and a befouled waterway, Seattle is anything but benevolent."

Those residents aren't necessarily the people who will benefit from the cleanup. "In South Park," Cummings said, "there is a huge concern over gentrification of the neighborhood if the river is cleaned up." In the long run, whoever lives there will have to deal with the results of climate change: Models predict more heavy winter rains to go along with rising sea level. If a heavy rain coincides with a high incoming tide and a strong wind, South Park and other low-lying areas along the Duwamish may wind up underwater.

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A blue heron looks over the Duwamish River's offerings. Credit: a href=

Many toxic chemicals that have wound up in the soils and sediment weren't deliberately dumped. PCBs, largely banned by the EPA since 1979, were "widely used in a lot of materials, a lot of electrical material, paints, caulks," explains Allison Hiltner, the EPA's former project manager for the lower Duwamish cleanup. In addition, a lot of old paper had PCBs that had been used in ink. Ironically, she says, where "people were trying to do the right thing, recycling old paper, you find PCBs."

In 2000, Boeing realized the caulking between concrete slabs on runways and elsewhere had been kept flexible by incorporating PCBs, which leached out and ultimately wound up in the river. Between 2001 and 2012, the company says, it removed more than 23 miles of concrete joint caulking from North Boeing Field and Plant 2.

Boeing has also dredged up what it characterizes as 4,000 rail cars full of contaminated sediment. Below the site of Boeing's old Plant 2, the company has turned roughly a mile of industrial riverfront into marsh and riparian habitat. On June 19, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) gave Boeing a national award for restoration.

In some spots, Boeing contractors have already dredged 25 feet below the river. Why so deep? People talked a lot about how much to dredge, Hiltner says, and it all boiled down to a basic question: "Do you want to just cover up the contamination but then know you're on the hook forever — or do you want to just take it all out and be done?" Boeing chose to be done.

Under the current plan, another 960,000 cubic yards of sediment distributed over 105 acres of the river bottom will be dredged up. Twenty-four acres will be capped. Another 48 acres will be covered thinly with as little as half a foot of clean sediment as "enhanced natural recovery." Why not just cap more toxic sediment and dredge less? Or just leave the bad stuff there until clean sediment washed downstream by the Green River simply buries it? Tugs and other commercial vessels motor up and down the lower river. Their propeller wash churns up the bottom.

The EPA worried that if contaminated sediment were just left there, the prop wash would dislodge it. The cleanup could just cap a lot of the contaminated sediment, Hiltner says, "but we would have to restrict boat access." At public meetings, "what we heard loud and clear from all the comments [was:] 'let this be a working waterway.' "

When the salmon are running, virtually the whole river is strained through Indian gillnets. The Muckleshoots and Suquamish have treaty rights to fish there. At the river mouth, you see non-Indians — some of them from southeast Asian ethnic communities — fishing and crabbing from shore. That isn't a good idea.

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The 2011 Duwamish River Festival hosted by the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition. Credit:

For years, signs in a variety of languages have warned people not to eat bottom fish or shellfish from the river. For years, some people have ignored them. "We are trying to get the word out to people," Hiltner says, that "they really shouldn't eat resident fish and shellfish." However, "there have been signs up for a decade. Some people will do what a sign says and some people won't. We're just realizing that's not enough."

Because members of tribes and immigrant ethnic groups catch and eat fish from the river, lowering the level of contaminants in those fish has been discussed as a matter of environmental justice. The cleanup plan will, in fact, be more elaborate and expensive than some parties wanted in order to make fish consumption safer.

But not entirely safe. The cleanup won't really start for a couple of years. The EPA figures toxics will reach their low point 17 years after that.

And even then, will it ever be safe to eat unlimited quantities of fish from the river? "I wish that that were the case," Hiltner says. But it's not. "You've got to look at really clean areas of Puget Sound," she says. Even in those places, there are still fish advisories. In fact, people are warned to eat Chinook no more than once a week anywhere in southern Puget Sound.

It's hard to escape toxic crud. "PCBs are global," Hiltner says. So, it turns out, are pthalates. They are the ingredients that make PVC flexible. They off-gas wherever they are, which is to say virtually everywhere. The airborne molecules descend to the water and land. Airborne mercury, put aloft by coal plants in China and elsewhere, does the same. Some mercury has entered the Duwamish from, say, old electrical switches contained in auto scrap. Some also comes from a layer of high-mercury coal over which the Green River flows. And some comes from the air. This is not a problem unique to the Duwamish. The Washington Department of Health warns against eating fish from otherwise more-or-less-pristine lakes because they contain too much mercury that has fallen from the sky. For example, it advises pregnant women, nursing mothers and small children not to eat any smallmouth bass or many perch caught in Lake Whatcom.

People speak of "restoring" the river — and there is, in fact, a "restoration plan" — but restoring it to what? What is the baseline? You can make the sediments cleaner. You can plant some bushes and trees along the banks. But you can't un-ring certain bells. You could envision a return to something resembling the river as Chief Seattle knew it, but in the real world, we'll have to settle for something less.

Boeing's five acres have been restored. The so-called Turning Basin at the head of the dredged channel was first planted with native vegetation 20 years ago, when the shoreline was muddy and bleak, and the hulk of a burned out state ferry had just been hauled away. Now, the plantings have matured, and the basin is a poster child for shoreline restoration. Terminal 117, long the highly-contaminated site of asphalt shingle manufacturing, is being turned into a park. Elsewhere, you see new restoration sites covered with netting to keep Canada geese from uprooting the tiny plants. If all goes according to plan, the number of acres restored as habitat will grow to 26.

That restoration represents a vast improvement. And yet . . . . There used to be more than 5,000 acres of floodplain habitat along the Duwamish. It's virtually all gone. Very little of it is coming back.

Why not tear down the Howard Hanson Dam that blocks the Green River (and the levees along the Green's banks), so that the Duwamish's sole tributary can behave like a natural river — naturally flooding Auburn, Kent and Tukwila? Well, why not also close the Ship Canal, letting Lake Washington rise until it floods Husky Stadium and Bill Gates' lakeside estate, then drains south to the Duwamish once again? Why not give SoDo back to the tides?

Right. It isn't going to happen.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.