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Lower Duwamish Waterway plan open for public comment

Seattle’s Duwamish River was once a meandering estuary in the heart of the city. A century ago, it was transformed into an industrial waterway and used as a dumping ground for decades.

Now it’s a Superfund site – and the Environmental Protection Agency has released a plan to clean it up.

The EPA spent more than a decade studying the five-mile stretch of the Duwamish that runs through Southpark and Georgetown into Elliot Bay. They found sediment contaminated with toxins such as PCBs and Dioxins. EPA assistant director Lori Cohen says their proposal would get rid of most of it.

“We have identified 156 acres of the river where we will have active clean up, meaning we’re either going to dredge the material, cap the material or add some material to the surface sediments. And over time those areas will recover,” Cohen says.

She says the dredging will take about seven years. And they’ll monitor how the river heals itself for another ten years. They’ll move out an estimated 790-thousand cubic yards of contaminated soil – about as much as would fill Seattle’s Columbia tower. It’s a compromise that will cost about $305 million dollars.

“We believe that about 90% of the contamination in the river will be reduced and the fish will be safer for people to eat.”

But community groups say it’s not safe enough. BJ Cummings with the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition says the basic concept right now calls for only removing the toxic sediment when it can’t be covered up. They want to see as much as possible removed.  

“Covering up the waste means it can come back up to the surface if it gets disturbed in the future,” Cummings says. “We should be removing toxic waste wherever we can and only covering it up, capping it, where it’s technically difficult or we have infrastructure that we don’t want to disturb.”

She’s standing on the shore at Duwamish Waterway Park, in the heart of South Park. She says you can often see otters and seals here. It’s also where lots of low-income people come to fish. And right now, the flounder and other resident seafood they catch is toxic.

“We need to make sure that people can fish here in the Duwamish just as they can fish in the clean areas of Puget Sound. There are people who do not have the option of taking the day to go off and fish two or three hours away. The fish here need to be safe to eat.”

She says her community coalition is working with the UW’s School of Public Health to strengthen that aspect of the plan. And they’ll push for more sustainable cleanup methods. They’ll take part in public meetings with the EPA as well as put on workshops of their own during the comment period, which continues through mid-June.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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