Duwamish River Advocates Hopeful EPA’s Plan Will Be Effective

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently unveiled its plan to clean the Duwamish River of pollution.
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It’s been 35 years since James Rasmussen, chairman of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, fished in the Duwamish River, his ancestors’ waterway which drains into Puget Sound.

From her office in the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center near the river, Duwamish Tribe Chairwoman Cecile Hansen bemoans the fact that her tribe, which is fighting to restore its recognition by the federal government, can’t treaty-fish in the river. Yet she admits she wouldn’t eat a fish caught in the Duwamish River today.

Since 1900, the lower Duwamish River has been straightened, industrialized and polluted. In late November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled its plan to clean the river of pollution that turned it into a Superfund site.

The EPA’s cleanup plan complements more than 20 years of work that has already been done to remove junk from the river, restore wetlands, replace industrial sites with parks and open space, and impose tougher restrictions and fines on polluters.

RELATED: $342 Million to Clean Duwamish River Superfund Site: EPA Finalizes Plan

The EPA’s plan targets 422 acres in the lower river for cleanup, at an estimated cost of $342 million: 105 acres will be dredged or partially edged and capped; 24 acres will be capped with clean soil and activated carbon, the latter of which is widely used in removing pollutants from air or water. If activated carbon proves effective, another 48 acres would be capped with clean soil and activated carbon.

Another 235 acres will be monitored for recovery through natural processes, such as infiltration of cleaner sediments from upstream. Another 33 acres where the contamination levels are below federal thresholds of concern will be monitored. After 10 years, both blocks of acreage could be subjected to additional cleanup.

The work in the final cleanup plan is expected to take 17 years – seven years of active cleanup and 10 years of monitored natural recovery, according to an EPA act sheet.

Some of Rasmussen’s concerns: The possible impacts of activated carbon on benthic organisms and aquatic insects.

Two, he would like to see all contaminated soil removed, not capped, saying that capped areas will have to be monitored in perpetuity. “Over time, it will cost more than to just take it out right now,” he said.

And he’d like to see the area’s stormwater systems modified so the first stormwater of the rainy season can go to treatment plants and not the river.

“We have 38 square miles draining into one storm-drain outfall alone,” he said in a 2011 interview with ICTMN. “In the summertime, we’ve gone weeks, and it hasn’t rained, and then we have a heavy rain, and all the oil and everything on the streets washes into the storm-drain system and goes out into the Duwamish River. One of the solutions King County is looking at today is a switch that sends that first flush of storm water to the treatment plant instead of out into the river … The work of detecting and monitoring sources of contaminants going into the [Duwamish] River and fixing those problems has been ongoing for 15 years and it’s starting to make a difference. This is a watershed issue; it’s not just the Duwamish but what’s coming into the Duwamish.”

Next for the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition: Working with the community on logistics – where dredging will happen, how trucks and equipment will move in and out of the area.

To the people who have always lived on the Duwamish, the river is more than just about fishing. The watershed supports a diverse variety of plant and animal life that was important to the Duwamish people, and is important now.

Still, Rasmussen, who is now 60, looks forward to casting a line or dipping a net in the Duwamish again like he did in his youth. “The whole concept of eating something out of the river – of being able to clam and crab – I think I will enjoy that time. It’s going to be an important time for me as well as other tribal members.”

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