Sustainable West Seattle forum: Time for everyone’s opinion on key Duwamish River decisions

(WSB photo from October 2009)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

The timing was perfect.

On the day that a key document went public, a first draft of the next phase of trying to heal the polluted Duwamish River, Sustainable West Seattle convened a Community Forum with experts who explained why it matters and why your opinion matters.

The forum, with more than 40 people on hand inside Camp Long Lodge last night, wasn’t only about the Feasibility Study that went public hours earlier (links are atop the right sidebar of this site). But since the topic – the Duwamish River’s past, present and future – is intertwined with the issue of how to handle its pollution, that’s where the discussion tended to focus.

Participating: Genevieve Aguilar of Puget Sound Sage, Kathy Bahnick of the Port of Seattle, Lori Cohen from the Environmental Protection Agency, B.J. Cummings from the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, Heather Trim from People for Puget Sound, and Bob Warren from the Washington State Department of Ecology.

With Sustainable West Seattle vice president Gary Lichtenstein as moderator, they spoke for two hours, including Q/A. Before we jump into the highlights – we recorded the entirety of the forum on video – with a fixed camera, so it may be more useful as audio than video – it’s in three chunks, left to right (you can watch any clip fullscreen by clicking once to bring up its title, then clicking on the title itself to go to its page at

Over and over again, everyone who spoke reiterated the importance of public comment on the newly released Feasibility Study, which outlines potential cleanup plans for the five-mile stretch known as the Lower Duwamish – varying methods and varying costs, rising as high as $1.3 billion.

While the EPA is perhaps the loudest government voice in the process, given that the Duwamish is under the auspices of the so-called Superfund cleanup program that involves the most-polluted spots in the U.S., the loudest advocacy voice is that of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, and Cummings was the first to put the situation in perspective, using her “opening statement” time for a photo-enhanced presentation, explaining that one of DRCC’s major roles is “to help you all understand big documents like today’s.”

The DRCC has helped create documents too – Cummings mentioned the community vision made public in early 2009 (here’s our coverage of the river trip in which she showcased some of its elements). But right now, the crisis in the crosshairs is the fact that over the last near-century, it has become both “Seattle’s industrial-shipping center,” with 80,000 jobs tied to the Duwamish, and “one of the nation’s most toxic sites.” Priorities must be set, she observed – whether the people of this region determine it more important to restore habitat, honor the Duwamish’s role in traditional tribal culture, its use as fishing grounds, recreation, an economic engine, or – she asked – “Is it possible to combine these uses? … We’ve been asking these questions for years.”

Some cleanup work already has been done or is in progress, it was pointed out – the “hot spots.”

The Port of Seattle’s Bahnick – who took the baton from Port Commissioner Rob Holland (now a West Seattleite) who explained he couldn’t sit on the panel because of his decisionmaking role in the process – said some of the “early actions” involving the port will “get rid of 40 percent of the risk.”

“Pockets of restoration” were described by Trim from People for Puget Sound, with “habitat and industry cohabitating gracefully – (in what) could be a model for the rest of Puget Sound.”

Aguilar, who noted she had worked as a community builder in High Point until recently, voiced concern about one specific facet of area pollution – emission from commercial trucks (which is the subject of a forum tonight at the Georgetown campus of South Seattle Community College). She said that while this area is working on an improved plan for dealing with these emissions, it’s nothing like the progressive plans that are in place in areas such as Los Angeles.

Asked about the biggest success for the river so far, Cummings’ reply: “How the community has taken control.” One cleanup plan was completely revamped because of community reaction, and the new plan was just signed Friday, in a process that worked so well, she said, its project manager received an environmental-justice award.

Biggest challenges? “Source control,” said Trim – reducing the pollution that still flows into the Duwamish, even as the “old” pollution is cleaned up. “We cannot have hundreds of millions of dollars spent on cleaning up this river … and (then) have to go clean it up again … that is the number one challenge.” She later elaborated that PCBs, for example, are coming from caulk, paint, and other materials that were used in buildings between the ’50s and 70s, so they’re continuing to get into the river from existing sites that might not have been viewed as pollution sources.

Asked by SWS’s Chas Redmond about arsenic from the Asarco smelter, Ecology’s Warren mentioned the map on his agency’s website, while Trim acknowledged it plays a part, but said arsenic from industrial sources right on the Duwamish provided “an additional high load.”

DRCC’s Cummings agreed that ongoing pollution is a major challenge – including airborne toxins that are not being controlled – but also voiced concern that “we are looking at a dozen alternatives in this document released (Monday), and not a single one of them is predicted to protect the health of people fishing in the river.” She also is not happy with the fact that “pretty much … everything above River Mile 5” is ignored, which she feels “is going to undermine … the cleanup.”

Some of the discussion veered into educational points, such as Pam Elardo, interim director of the King County Wastewater Treatment Division, providing, from the audience, a tutorial on combined sewer overflows (CSOs), which have made news here in West Seattle recently because of the process to plan and build facilities to reduce them from the basins feeding two pump stations on the southern West Seattle shore – but are also a factor on the Duwamish. (Elardo mentioned the county’s online map showing where and when overflows are happening.)

From the panel, Warren explained that once a source of pollution is found, the state identifies Potentially Liable Parties (PLPs), gets information from them and negotiates an agreement. That brought a pointed audience question – “so you ask the potential polluter to study their own pollution?” – Warren: “It might sound a little funny, but yes, we do,” elaborating that while the PLP “spends the money,” the state “hires the consultants.”

That gave Cummings a springboard to bring it back to the Feasibility Study document that has just come out. “It’s the county, city, port, Boeing’s proposed alternatives (for cleanup), which is why the EPA needs to hear from you. Next year, there will be a document that comes from the EPA – but it’s important that it include a balanced menu of options based on what you want to see.”

Cohen offered that EPA has not yet gone through the Feasibility Study document “line by line” – it’s almost 700 pages, someone noted – but “we do think it has a good range of alternatives.” The comment period already is under way, and will continue till December 23rd. There’ll be public meetings in the meantime – and other ways to comment before the EPA’s final decision on a cleanup option in early 2012 – but it’s better to get involved sooner rather than later.

Cummings noted that DRCC’s science advisers were looking through the document effective immediately, so they would have a short set of bullet points soon and an official comment letter after that, which will be available through their website (

Whatever is chosen, Trim noted, will take at least a decade, and if it has a silver lining, it’s the number of jobs the cleanup will create.

Could the money be spent more efficiently somewhere else, rehabilitating many salmon streams and other ecologically vital spots instead of just focusing on this one area? asked SWS’s Bill Reiswig. Cummings agreed that a regional conversation would be in order, but “in this situation, it’s local damage to the environment, affecting local people, (created by local people) … their liability is here.” And Trim added that there’s no question this isn’t just the biggest pollution spot in the area, it’s the most serious – mentioning “fish with lesions” found in Elliott Bay as well as the Duwamish.

Even more pollution sources were discussed – In response to a question from SWS’s Gene Homicki, Trim talked about the phaseout of copper in vehicle brakes – “it affects juvenile salmon’s sense of smell,” which keeps them from detecting danger from predators. And she talked about the search for sources of phthalates, common components in plastic products that can affect human reproductive health – “We haven’t nailed down where those sources are in the Duwamish.” She also mentioned one success, a chemical common to portable toilets, identified as a polluter and then taken out of the loop with a “simple fix, once they found it.”

It’s not just industrial sources, but choices made in your everyday life that can affect the Duwamish River, and Puget Sound, for that matter, as was reiterated by almost everyone on the panel. Cummings made it clear that “stormwater is the biggest impact on Puget Sound every year – whether the pipe at your home drains to the Duwamish or to beaches, doesn’t matter. … Driving less means less emissions, fuel leakage, need for oil changes, car washes …” and therefore less contaminants into local waterways.

Another reminder: Don’t flush medication you no longer need.

But right now, participating in the decisionmaking process is absolutely imperative, it was reiterated: “The more the EPA hears from you, the more it will matter.” Bahnick suggested, “Don’t let the 672-page document intimidate you.” Cummings observed, “I think the cleanup could affect many aspects of our lives – look at the alternatives” to see how they might affect the kind of life you want to lead.

And here’s where to start:

*Links to the Feasibility Study with potential cleanup options are atop the right sidebar here – including the “executive summary” with which you can start

*Here’s the EPA page with many more related links

*Community meetings are scheduled 4-8 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 7 at Concord Elementary School in South Park and 4-8 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 9 at South Seattle Community College’s Georgetown campus

*From the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition website, community workshops to talk about the proposals – including one in West Seattle, November 8: 11:30-2:30pm – Brownbag Lunch, Youngstown Cultural Arts Center: 4408 Delridge Way SW ~ Coffee and dessert provided!

*Here’s an online link to comments

1 Reply to "Sustainable West Seattle forum: Time for everyone's opinion on key Duwamish River decisions"

  • Christy October 20, 2010 (3:16 pm)

    Nice job covering this, Tracy. Thanks for being there.

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