Duwamish River: Taking a look toward its future, ‘for all’

(2011 photo by Danny McMillin)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

“The Duwamish really needs our help.”

So began this month’s Sustainable West Seattle community forum about our city’s only river.

How can you help? One way is through simple personal action, particularly when it comes to reducing/preventing stormwater/runoff-pollution, a campaign crystallized at Tox-Ick.org, whose champion “Diver Laura” James emceed the forum. She told those in attendance that just days earlier, she had spoken about it to 800 high-school students outside West Seattle.

Another way: Realize that the process of determining a cleanup plan for the river – so polluted in spots, it’s a “Superfund” site – is the process of determining whether it can be “A River for All.” That’s the vision of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, whose coordinator James Rasmussen spoke at the forum, recapping the comment period just concluded on the Environmental Protection Agency‘s proposed cleanup plan for the river – a plan which would leave 62 percent of the river “under monitored natural recovery, which basically means, ‘we’re not going to do anything with it’.”

DRCC, however, wants to “kickstart that with enhanced natural recovery,” and is very intent on “source control” – addressing the source of pollution, present and future as well as past – being part of the plan.

Rasmussen explained more of the backstory, for those who haven’t followed the cleanup saga extensively, noting that the Port, city, county, and Boeing formed the Lower Duwamish Waterway Group – but note that third word: “It’s fascinating to me that they never want to call it a river .. I’m sure they’ve done studies showing people would care about it if they call it a river.”

(The word “waterway” came into the equation more than a century ago, related to the straightening of what had been a curvy river – here’s the HistoryLink.org essay about that.)

(WSB photo this Tuesday, taken from passenger seat during drive over the West Seattle Bridge)
Other verbiage explained: The DRCC, Rasmussen noted, is not just an advocacy organization, it is the “technical advisory group” to the community and for the community in working with the EPA, educating rather than coaching; ” we take that role very seriously … we are not going to foist onto the community what we think they should do.”

He talked about some of the early cleanup work, such as T-117 in South Park, where work is under way now and “it’s amazing what they are finding there … barrels and tanks of recycled oil … even though it was visible … they didn’t think they would find what they have been finding.” When cleaned, though, he says, it will become “one of the most important habitat areas on the Duwamish River” – which already has several key areas, such as Kellogg Island (just off West Seattle’s shore – here’s a map).

The new South Park Bridge also will have “another big, huge habitat area.”

(September 2013 photo by Long Bach Nguyen)
But, Rasmussen stressed, people need to understand the city, county, port, etc., aren’t cleaning up and restoring habitat out of the goodness of their hearts – they have incentives to try to make up for the damage that’s been done over decades. And, he said, there’s pushback – while one goal is to clean the Duwamish to a level of pollution comparable to Puget Sound, which, according to Rasmussen, “is not a high bar,” they are asking for waivers even before things begin.

He then spoke of the concerns for the health of people who fish, and DRCC’s belief that they have the right to fish in a place with pollution no worse than the Sound. “We already know that thousands of people use the river to fish,” despite so many warnings – some for economic reasons, some for cultural reasons, including tribe members – Rasmussen noted that he himself is a member of the Duwamish Tribe.

The pollution is hard to imagine sometimes because it is hard to see or smell – he spoke of a DRCC outreach worker from Honduras who said, “This river looks great” – no smell, no floating dead fish, no open outfall pipes … and that can be deceptive, as well as dangerous, because the river is used by people who come from miles away; they come because there are no Fish and Wildlife agents, since no one is SUPPOSED to fish there. And it “becomes a haven” for people who don’t want official entanglements.

So, he elaborated, while no one is supposed to fish there, people ARE fishing there – and yet while the EPA is supposed to make sure the fish can become edible, he says, they already have warned that won’t be possible: “Which is very disappointing.” He said that DRCC does not do its own modeling – instead using information culled from elsewhere – one reference point right now, for example, is the Hudson River Superfund cleanup back east. A point of contention here right now is how much dredging should be done, and some concern that it will stir up more pollutants – but the Hudson’s recent dredges, according to Rasmussen, “have been among some of the cleanest dredges in the United States,” largely because an “environmental dredge” is being used, a piece of equipment that makes it a more-precise, closely monitored process. “Turbidity” – mud in the water – is an important measurement, he continued, saying that even recent dredges at “the most polluted site on the Duwamish River, Boeing Plant 2” (where bombers were made at a fast and furious pace last century) had very little.

It’s not just industrial pollution – there are also untreated sewer overflows into the river, for miles and miles and miles, Rasmussen noted – overflows that the county and city are now under orders to get controlled. Those control processes are higher on the priority list so that they’re taken care of sooner rather than later.

Rasmussen acknowledged the plan with more dredging would cost $200 million more than the EPA’s $300 million estimate – but he described it as something of a drop in the bucket compared to what’s being spent, for example, on beautifying Seattle’s waterfront. Responding to an attendee’s question, he said the locals aren’t even behind the EPA’s proposal. “If Seattle and King County don’t get out in front of this and show the leadership, none of the other cities that will go through this will (try hard).”

Seattle is the wealthiest city on Puget Sound in no small part because of the Duwamish River and what it’s enabled, like Boeing’s work.

“We OWE the river,” Laura James said at that point, from the sideline.

A question about money brought more enlightenment: Superfund is not so well-funded any more.

But the point remains, he said in another response, those who made the mess need to take care of it.

Things have changed, he said – businesses generally do not deliberately pollute any more. Pollution used to be 80 percent industry, 20 percent others, and now it’s the other way around. Storm runoff and sewer overflow is huge, so an awareness campaign is under way. And it’s possible – remember that a quarter-century ago, we didn’t separate our trash, and now everyone (here, at least) recycles.

He brought it home to their “A River for All” philosophy – for industry, for people, for fish/wildlife. For all. “I believe firmly not only can we do this, we NEED to do this. … My people have been here for 10,000 years, since the ice receded … it’s only been in the last 150 years that all this has happened.”

To truly address keeping more runoff out of the water, the city and county are building capacity – therefore the efforts with green stormwater infrastructure, for example, such as raingardens to get storm runoff into groundwater, not into sewer systems and then into waterways. The ground cleans the water. Eastern West Seattle, in particular, needs more of this, he said – Longfellow Creek, which runs along Delridge, kills off 90 percent of the returning fish.

It’s not just runoff – it’s thinking about substances that are used in manufacturing. Overall, it’s not even just about fish and wildlife. Between South Park and Ravenna residents, he said, there’s a 13-year gap in life expectancy. And it’s not just about industry; it’s now a matter of environmental justice and social justice

Rasmussen’s closing exhortation, circling back to how the Duwamish “needs your help”: Contact your city councilmembers, county councilmembers, mayor, and county executive, and tell them you want a better cleanup for the river, “because right now they are listening to their staff people, who are telling them, ‘we can get this done quickly and cheaply’ … But we need to help the river. … Our vision for the Duwamish River is that it can be ‘A River for All’.”

(WSB photo, summer 2010)
Introducing the next speaker, from the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle, James recalled growing up in Eastern Washington and not knowing about the toxicity of fish she and her family ate from a river near where they lived.

The speaker, Kevin Burrell, is South Park-based ECOSS’s executive director and a West Seattleite, who started by mentioning a video from the organization’s website, marking its 20th anniversary, starting with a trip out onto the Duwamish:

Burrell explained that ECOSS is “non-advocates and apolitical,” focused on teaching, “though we wouldn’t be nearly as successful” if not for those who ARE advocates and champions.

They focus on teaching businesses (with courses such as “regulatory compliance”). ECOSS, he said, is working with the community near the river about not only the cleanup but also about gentrification concerns and issues such as “how do we create better access to the river itself.” That’s a big issue in South Park, which has changed in a big way in recent years, and is grappling with many issues.

He wondered what expectations for the Duwamish would be if we fast-forwarded 20, 25 years. And he also noted that the business community along the river is vital in that “we need those jobs – family-wage jobs.” One suggestion for the future would be that those who use the river might be more the source of its good than government money and operations – especially if people learn the skills that are needed.

James observed that it is indeed the residents and others who for example keep small businesses in business – ultimately being reliant on your fellow locals is a good thing.

Same goes for West Seattle, said Burrell – if we all want healthy communities and healthy people, “there’s a lot more we need to be doing.”

Back to South Park and the Duwamish, ECOSS is working hard on outreach to as many parts of the community as they can, including people from all corners of the world. More studies with results due in the months ahead will show more information about “who’s using the river” and how, Burrell added, also sharing words of advice – be careful about spending non-locally, be careful what you buy, and what you do with it.

Laura James at that point made note of the “simple daily solutions.” She also works with Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, and brought up her previous volunteer work pulling lead batteries out of Puget Sound.

Speeches over, the ensuing dialogue ranged beyond specifics of pollution/cleanup to issues of racial equality and social justice. One exchange involved the apparent predominance of “well-off white people” in environmental work – and how people of color and economically challenged people can best be brought in – showing them how to make a difference in their own neighborhood is empowering, rather than something abstract such as “taking inner-city kids out into the splendor of a national forest,” Rasmussen suggested.

The issue of jobs and companies came up. The cleanup is not a threat to jobs, Rasmussen noted – for one, it creates jobs; for two, if it’s done right, there will be ongoing jobs in industry. And, he added during another conversation line – “We have to find compromise. … we have to be honest, but we have to find middle ground.”

Burrell said there are many facets to issues and concerns – residents might think businesses have been getting away with murder, while businesses are feeling “not taken care of.” But: “We’re all in this together,” and in the end, “we’re going to see a very different-looking shoreline” someday. Even in recent months, cleanup work has made changes.

And yet – “we have some catching up to do,” James said.

But “less fingerpointing and more working together” is vital, said Burrell.

Somebody has to show leadership, countered Rasmussen. And be sure to let your leaders “who are supposed to represent the community, but right now they are not” know what you are thinking, he insisted.

City contact info is at seattle.govkingcounty.gov.

The forum was held Monday, October 21st, at C & P Coffee Company (WSB sponsor). SWS began with a couple of announcements, including that it is looking for additional board members – watch sustainablewestseattle.org for information on that, and that the West Seattle Tool Library – launched as a project of Sustainable WS – will have a holiday party with the “Festivus” theme on December 6th.

Watch the SWS website for word of upcoming community forums’ topics and dates.

4 Replies to "Duwamish River: Taking a look toward its future, 'for all'"

  • Jennifer October 31, 2013 (9:49 am)

    This is such a huge important issue. I am so thankful that knowledgeable people are stepping forward to take on this problem. Kellogg Island used to be a prime Heron nesting site but is no longer due to the health of the area and other factors. I have walked along the shores of the Duwamish and you can smell the toxins in the mud. It’s such a pretty area and we have done such great harm to it. I’d also like to pass along for those who haven’t seen it, this 6:50 minute video by PBS on West Seattle’s own Diver Laura James (tox-ick.org and Puget Soundkeeper’s Alliance) and stormwater runoff. It really opened my eyes. http://thewhaletrail.org/stormwater-runoff-story-on-pbs Keep up the good work everyone! I wish I could help in this effort but not sure I have any skill set that would do any good!

  • Kevin Geraghty October 31, 2013 (9:50 pm)

    It’s not really the Duwamish anymore. The Duwamish was the combined flows of the Cedar, the White, and the Green. The White changed its course into the Puyallup and the Cedar got intentionally diverted into Lake Washington to flow out through Ballard locks. It should just be re-named the Green river, since that’s all it is anymore–the lower 12 miles of the Green.

    Alternately the name “green river” could be retired and the whole watercourse could be called the Duwamish.

  • Azimuth November 1, 2013 (9:59 am)

    Thanks for the info, Kevin. I hadn’t really considered that before. I’m kind of digging your alternate idea.

  • King County WTD November 1, 2013 (12:00 pm)

    Cleanup and protection of the Lower Duwamish is an important issue to all of us, no matter where we live or work in the region, and it’s great to see the West Seattle blog devote such extensive coverage to the issue.
    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, is in charge of Superfund cleanup and will issue a decision in 2014 about a cleanup plan and schedule.
    King County’s role in the cleanup and protection of the waterway started in the 1960s when we closed poorly functioning sewage treatment plants and built a regional wastewater system that cleaned up regional waterways.
    No doubt we’ve come a long way, and while there’s still work to do, we’re making tremendous progress.
    For the past decade, King County, the Port, Boeing the City of Seattle, have been engaged in early action cleanups that will address half the historical pollution in the Duwamish before Superfund cleanup starts many years from now. These early action cleanup investments will total almost $500 million. King County Executive Dow Constantine is unquestionably committed to devoting the resources needed for a successful cleanup.
    We’ve restored habitat, removed contaminated sediments, and made significant investments in community health and environmental improvements. We’re expanding the RainWise Program, which offers rebates that cover up to the entire cost to install a rain garden or cistern. Helping property owners manage their stormwater through RainWise will address two major concerns – flooding and water pollution.
    And we’ll continue our commitment to these communities in years to come by working with nonprofit groups and other agencies to address inequities and improve the quality of life for people who live and work in Lower Duwamish neighborhoods.
    We encourage people to learn a little more about King County’s role as a service provider, neighbor and representative government to Duwamish Valley residents.
    Please visit: http://www.kingcounty.gov/ourduwamish

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