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Reclaiming the Duwamish River: A Conversation With James Rasmussen

On November 1, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition $100,000 to identify health risks from exposure to pollution in the river and how to prevent exposure to that pollution.

The ancestors had had enough.

For millennia, the Duwamish River had been their link to resources, neighboring villages and relatives across what is now known as Puget Sound in the state of Washington. But now, it would take only 100 years to turn the lower river into a Superfund site.

The lower five miles of the river had been straightened and dredged to connect industries to shipping in Puget Sound and the Pacific. Storm-water runoff, fuel spills and hazardous refuse had poisoned the water. And now the Port of Seattle wanted to develop a container port on one of the last pristine sections of the river, at a place the ­Duwamish people knew as Ha-Ah’-Poos.

“That one place is where our ancestors spoke to us,” said James Rasmussen, a former Duwamish Tribe councilman who now leads the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, a community advisory group. The ancestors “spoke” through artifacts that were unearthed during preliminary construction of the container port. “[The ancestors] decided that this is the place they we’re going to save…and that’s when the artifacts started coming up. The port had to stop work.

“It’s the most important habitat outside the turning basin that we have, and it has been saved. And it hasn’t been saved because any one group said it had to be saved. It’s because our ancestors spoke.”
Rasmussen, who studied music in Boston and traveled the world as a jazz musician, has been involved in the effort to restore the river’s health for 30 years. In 2001, he helped get it designated a Superfund cleanup site.

On November 1, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded the coalition $100,000 to identify health risks from exposure to pollution in the river and how to prevent exposure to that pollution. Over the years, the coalition has grown to include city, county and federal agencies; universities; and environmental justice and neighborhood groups. All are working together to remove contamination, make industries greener and clean up storm water flowing into the river.

After the EPA presentation, Rasmussen talked to Indian Country Today Media Network about his love for his ancestral river, and what it will take to make it healthy for fish, other river animals, and people.

What are the biggest challenges to cleanup, and how do you know you’re going to be successful?
Businesses and industries are going to be part of the solution for the communities. And the communities are going to be part of the solution for businesses and industries of the area. Bridging that gap is going to be the most difficult and is going to give us the best opportunities. The industries that are in the Duwamish Valley are industries that really, to this point, didn’t have to worry about the people around them. That’s just the place where they operate. They don’t sell anything to the community, they have no relationship to the community. Now they have to. That’s the change.

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How long has the coalition been working to restore the river’s health?
The coalition is starting on its 11th year, which starts with designation of the Superfund site. All the organizations within the coalition have been working well before that. Including me, we can count 30 years working in the Duwamish on those issues. Today, when you go up and down the river, the habitat sites and those kind of things you see along the river, are things that have been done by our coalition members. When we get done with Superfund, there will be more habitat sites and more parks.

What did it take to get business and community to go from being adversaries to being partners?
It has been a long dance. Businesses, even the government, had explored: How can I squeeze my way out of the responsibility I have in this terrible, dirty place? Today, there aren’t many ways to squeeze out of it. In Seattle and King County, social justice is an important issue. Both the city and county councils have passed resolutions to respect those issues. That means they have actually set themselves up to make a difference. Now we have the perfect storm—the city, county, EPA as well as communities and businesses being motivated to do the right thing.

In June, the Department of Ecology fined Boeing $102,000 for a jet fuel spill in the river. Did that set relationships back at all?
No. Boeing knew it did the wrong thing. These are the changes being made: Thirty years ago, if there was a spill in the river it was intentional in the sense that it was going out there into Puget Sound—dilution is the solution. Today, it is the exception to the rule. That’s why Boeing was fined so heavily. And Boeing accepted it because they made a mistake. That’s light-years from where they were 30 years ago.

When you talk about reducing pollution levels in the river, what is the baseline?
Puget Sound is not pristine in any way, shape or form. But when we talk about bringing the Duwamish River to natural background level, we’re talking about the level where Puget Sound is today. If we want our industries to thrive in that area, we have to do a better job. If we can only get to 90 percent of what is background level of Puget Sound, that’s still at the state level of what’s going to be a cleanup site. That means these businesses will not expand, they will still be under state regulations as far as cleanups are concerned. That isn’t acceptable to communities, and it shouldn’t be acceptable to the businesses.

Toxins in the river’s sediment include arsenic, carcinogenic hydrocarbons, dioxins and PCBs. How did contamination go on for so long?
Businesses were convinced that they could keep contaminating forever, that they didn’t need to change what they were doing as long as they were willing to pay $300,000 to $500,000 a year in attorneys’ fees. And they paid it. Now they’re asking, “Wait, what if I would have put this money into what I needed to do, instead of ignoring it and waiting year after year and the interest increased?” They’re coming to the realization that cleanup needs to be done and it needs to be done right, because if it isn’t done right, they’re still on the hook. How do they do this? They get through this by having the best possible cleanup that they can. They do this by having green infrastructure.

What are some things being done now to protect the river from upland pollution sources?
We have 38 square miles draining into one storm-drain outfall alone. 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 Endangered Species Act has forced the county to look upriver and work with a large consortium to put in a habitat plan along the Green River, which becomes the Duwamish. The work of detecting and monitoring sources of contaminants going into the Green 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.

Community groups have done a lot of cleanups and businesses are being held accountable and adopting better practices. What else is going on?
First, habitat improvements in the past 30 years are light-years ahead of where the river was before. There is habitat on the Duwamish River. Thirty years ago, there wasn’t habitat on the Duwamish River.
Boeing Plant 2: The cleanup plan is take everything out, replace it with habitat.
Slip 4, which has already started: Take everything out, leave a cap underneath for some remnants, create habitat on top.
Jorgensen Forge: Take everything out. We’re not creating habitat on top of it because Jorgensen is an ongoing business. But we’re cleaning everything out.
T117, the former site of Duwamish Manufacturing and Malarkey Asphalt: Take everything out and replace with intertidal habitat, which is creating a huge intertidal habitat area plus habitat across the river that will increase the likelihood of salmon recovery and native species recovery within the Duwamish.
That will take out more than half the pollutants in the Duwamish River. These early action areas are the most polluted on the river.

When will those cleanup projects be completed?
Within the next two to three years. And then EPA wants to dredge and remove contaminated sediments.

So when will the Duwamish River be considered clean?
Thirty years from now. You’re talking about a lot of work. It took more than a hundred years to get it as dirty as it is, and over the past 30 years it’s better. Thirty years from now, we’ll be able to eat a fish out of that place.