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Tacoma’s Cleaned Up Waterways Need Legislative Attention, Advocates Say

Bellamy Pailthorp
A view of the Thea Foss Waterway, near Commencement Bay in Tacoma, Wash. in early June 2017.

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent over the last few decades to clean up toxic pollution from the region’s industrial past.

In Tacoma, a prime spot for manufacturing and processing is the waterfront area in the center of town.

The City of Destiny no longer suffers from the notorious “Tacoma aroma” of its past. But some of the less-visible cleanup work is vulnerable because of budget cuts before the state legislature.

Advocates from two environmental groups have been hosting boat tours of the Tacoma waterways, to call attention to how far the city has come in cleaning up its pollution.

Boating For Advocacy 

On the Blair Waterway, you see big oil refineries and huge green cranes that can lift piles of multi-colored shipping containers onto barges or rail cars.

“All the stories that I hear about what the waterway and commencement bay were like 30 years ago is that it was basically dead,” said Melissa Malott, executive director of Citizens for a Healthy Bay.

Nearby, on the Thea Foss Waterway, we sail past yachts and other pleasure boats. And looming above it all are expensive condo apartments with great mountain views.

“It’s incredible. It feels like what you think of as being tropical. Because there’s so much life – and it wasn’t that way30 years ago,” Malott said.

Joining her on their Bay Patrol boat is Mindy Roberts, with the Washington Environmental Council. She says potential cuts before the legislature could cause major backsliding on toxic cleanup, especially because right now, lawmakers are setting the budget for the next two years.

“And we’ve already recognized that there’s a shortfall,” Roberts said.

“So what that means is, unless that shortfall is filled for toxic waste cleanup sites, that work won’t happen. And we know that the need is increasing in the next few years, we’re going to see some very large needs increasing. And the work simply can’t happen, unless there’s funding to do so.”  

This Pollution Can Cause Cancer

Particularly important are sediments that are underneath the waterway. There’s still work to be done capping more contamination, the environmental groups say, as well as a risk of storm water runoff causing more pollution. So the bill before the Legislature right now would fund continuing caps on sites that need them and would fund work to prevent future pollution. The money would come from a tax on hazardous substances such as oil and gas and other fuels.

One reason for the current shortfall is the low price of oil.  Many of the toxics in question are chemicals that are known to cause cancer.  

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to