Under the West Seattle Bridge, one man “thinks global, acts local”

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

That spot under the high-rise bridge- a stone’s throw from the low bridge – is at the heart of a no-man’s land of sorts – where multiple jurisdictions have ownership and interests, on the shore of a channel at the north end of the Duwamish. Other interests there are those of residents like a great blue heron known as “Grandpa“:

Pull back, and you can see where he is:

Turn in the other direction, here’s what you see:

That’s Jim Clark Marina. Not just a place to keep your boat when you’re not on it – it’s also headquarters to Neal Chism‘s cleanup mission removing trash from marina waters and a nearby section of the Duwamish – hand tools and all.

The grabber is store-bought, but the other item is an invention – a $3 office-item sorting basket tacked to a piece of wood.

With those items, and a few others, Neal has been fishing trash out of the waterway, and pulling it from the shore, for about four months now. As he explains it:

Around about the first of June this year I reached a point where I could no longer stand to look at all the trash that was building up in the parking lot area out in front of our small marina on Harbor Island. At the same time, I was frustrated at the fact that while trash was floating in the waters of the marina just a few feet away from the boat docks I could not reach it.

He is a self-described “semi-retired engineer,” so of course he’s been tracking what he’s finding and making charts:

That chart shows the volume fluctuation in the trajectory of trash he has been picking up on nearby beaches along the waterway – just within a mile or so; the beaches have nicknames, like “Safe,” where a discarded safe turned up once, and “Seal Pup,” for a little critter who turned up there. They aren’t sandy beaches like Alki – more rocky shores, like this one on the north side of the bridge, not far from a pocket park on Port of Seattle land:

Also nearby, a city sewer-line project related to the reason we first heard from Neal – a big project under the bridge (something we’ll follow up on separately!):

But first, more about what he’s doing and why. Neal cites the infamous story of the Great Garbage Patch in the middle of the Pacific – hundreds of miles wide, a repository for trash, particularly plastic, that starts a million places that ultimately feed into the ocean. Neal says he traveled extensively in the South Pacific and was horrified by what garbage has done – a disposable lighter that finds itself into the water, for example, might get eaten by an albatross with a 10-foot wingspan, get stuck in its throat, and starve the bird to death. So, to keep at least a small portion of the trash from getting that far, he’s taking action, one piece of trash at a time. “This is for the birds,” he says – including ones he’s photographed, like Grandpa:

He shows us the photos in a shack at the marina, where he has been restoring an old sailboat, and where he also keeps the “cataraft” he uses to travel to nearby beaches – pull up, pick up some trash, get back into the water and row to the next beach – it’s atop this stack of small boats:

The narrow end of the channel where the marina sits is something of the last bottleneck before trash is closer to making its way into Elliott Bay – he showed us this on a navigation chart:

What he picks up isn’t all trash. He also cuts plastic rope left behind when net fishers remove their nets; he’s invented a battery-powered, gun-shaped device that heats a wire to slice through them:

So far, his project has been a one-person effort. Later this month, he’ll be talking to others at the marina about what he’s been doing, and how they might help. It’s something almost anyone can help with – not just by avoiding throwing trash on beaches, let alone into the water, but also being careful not to lose items in the water – some of what he picks up involves tennis balls tossed for dogs to fetch, for example. Also, it just so happens that the next semiannual Duwamish Alive! cleanup is a week away – 10 am-2 pm October 17th – with hundreds of volunteers set to work along the waterway and in nearby greenbelts (including here in West Seattle). His project, however, isn’t really formal – except for this:

Picking up the trash turns out to be the easy part. Finding a way to have the collected trash hauled away is tougher. I came up with the idea of having the area officially adopted under the Seattle Public Utilities “Adopt a Street” program. Instead of adopting a street, however, I adopted an area from Klickitat Way over to the water. The benefit of using this program is that the city gets volunteers (me) to pick up an area, and the city will take the refuse and clean-green away for free.

If we haven’t mentioned this sooner – Neal didn’t contact us looking for publicity – he e-mailed regarding the aforementioned sewer project, and when he mentioned his cleanup work, we asked if we could meet him to do a story about it. Turns out he COULD use a little publicity – he’s pitched his project as an idea for the Discovery Channel show “Dirty Jobs” – read his pitch on their forum, and give him a vote if you think it would make a good episode.

16 Replies to "Under the West Seattle Bridge, one man "thinks global, acts local""

  • marty October 9, 2009 (7:20 pm)

    Great job, thank you so much!!!

  • Kayzel October 9, 2009 (8:17 pm)

    This is a great story. Labor of love personified. Thank you.

  • GenHillOne October 9, 2009 (8:46 pm)

    Love this story! Thank you, Neal – and a stroke of genius on the city trash/green pick-up.

  • Krystal October 9, 2009 (11:00 pm)

    Great Story!

  • Chris Pettingil October 10, 2009 (1:16 am)

    As I ponder upon this article, I remember a time before all the apartments that had had sprung up all over West Seattle. ANd when a good majority of West Seattle was green before so called “green belts” were all the rage amongst the minds of engineers and city planners alike.It’s people like Neal that really help the planet be Green again not the “ordinances” and “special interests”, go Neal fair winds and following seas.

  • cathy October 10, 2009 (7:18 am)

    I love this story as well. Thanks so much to you and Neal.

  • Jeff October 10, 2009 (9:23 am)

    Neal, you are a true hero.

  • Tom October 10, 2009 (10:18 am)

    Tracy – Lovely story. I like it when WSB writes occasional longer features. Neal – wonderful work, keep it up. Chris – actually, apartment and condo living is one of the most “green” ways to live, in terms of energy use and consumption. Count me as a vote for urban density, I love it that West Seattle is getting denser.

  • Julie October 10, 2009 (10:49 am)

    Thanks for this story of an “unsung hero”.

  • mark October 10, 2009 (10:50 am)

    Such inspiration! I am going tackle cleaning my bathroom.

  • dawsonct October 10, 2009 (10:56 am)

    Thank you, Neal! I am always disturbed by the growing amounts of refuse blowing around the streets and, eventually, into our waterways. Please teach your children the importance of not littering, and don’t be embarrassed to let a stranger know that their littering is NOT socially acceptable.
    All communities need individuals with dedication to their causes, but this does NOT absolve the larger community (collectively, our government) from our responsibilities. Another word for “ordinance” is rule, and if we, as a society, don’t create and enforce rules (laws) collectively, the members of our society with money and influence will dominate and destroy the lives of the majority.

  • Babs October 10, 2009 (12:29 pm)

    Wow, what a lovely story and quite the eye-opener, I had no idea one person was removing all that trash from our marina waters. Maybe now the word is out, others will practice prevention and help……kudos to you Neal! Love grandpa too!

  • west seattle golfer October 10, 2009 (4:24 pm)

    What a neat story! Thank you Neal, and thank you TR for a well written piece!

  • Cari October 11, 2009 (8:15 am)

    Hi WSB!
    Thanks Tracy for that great article. Please let Neal Chism know (or pls send me his number/email) that we’d love to meet up with him on the 17th on Duwamish Alive — we’re going to have boats, kayaks, and canoes out in the river from 10-2pm and all are welcome. I’d also like to be part of his ongoing efforts. Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition (‘cleanup’ mostly refers to the eventual removal of toxic sediments, but also trash!) is out on the river providing tours often, and we can help spread the word. Cheers!

  • wseye October 11, 2009 (7:11 pm)

    You’re a good man, Neal. Thanks for all you do!

  • Scott October 12, 2009 (8:58 am)

    Its heartbreaking to think that the Duwamish is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world. Right here in our backyard! I went out with Jon, one of the Alki Kayak Tour guides a few weeks ago for what was originally intended to be a sightseeing paddle up the Duwamish. Instead it ended up being a trash collecting trip, which actually turned out to be very fun and fulfilling. We would spot of piece of floating trash, race up to it, and then put it in the storage compartment of out boats.

    Everyone can do their part, every little bit helps.

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