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Head Of EPA Tours Puget Sound, Supports Congressional Cleanup Caucus

Bellamy Pailthorp
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy touring Commencement Bay on August 13, 2014, with Puget Sound Partnership Executive Director Sheida Sahandy in the background.

She’s been called President Obama’s “green quarterback.” Gina McCarthy is the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and she's known for tackling sources of climate change. And now she’s shining a light on efforts to clean up Puget Sound.

McCarthy met with government officials and community groups in Tacoma on Wednesday and toured Commencement Bay by boat to learn more about what still needs to be done. 

Nature was on full display for the EPA administrator’s visit. Within minutes of entering what was once a filthy waterway, wildlife started to appear. As the ship's captain steered past a rock pile near a Thea Foss tugboat, he pointed out two bald eagles feeding there.

“Did you do that just for me?” quipped McCarthy, a spirited Bostonian with a distinctive laugh. 

McCarthy was handpicked by President Barack Obama to help usher in an ambitious climate change agenda, with new limits on coal power plants. She also had a big hand in implementing new auto emissions standards in her previous role as clean air czar. But she says great waterways like Puget Sound are equally important.

“You can’t separate them. It’s all connected. What goes into the air often is deposited into the water,” she said.

While onboard, McCarthy was briefed on everything from ocean acidification to derelict vessels that have been polluting the water and costing tax dollars. The visit was hosted by Rep. Denny Heck and Rep. Derek Kilmer, the two freshmen Congressmen who last year formed the Puget Sound Caucus to raise the profile of cleanup efforts. 

McCarthy told the roundtable at Tacoma's Center for Urban Waters that she got interested in the Sound’s issues a couple of years ago as a result of constant lobbying from the head of the EPA’s region 10 office, Dennis McLerran.

“And he sort of sat me down at a restaurant right in Seattle on the waterfront, where we ate salmon, looked at the ferries, remarked about the kayaks, looked at the Olympics and Mount Rainer. And he knew he had me at ‘hello.' This was it, you know?” she said.

The tour stopped at several spots in Commencement Bay, with policy advisors pointing out successful cleanups of years past, such as the massive Asarco Superfund site and the Simpson paper mill. 

Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KPLU News

But they also said future restoration is more complicated, because it’s more spread out and harder to get to. Jennifer Steger, regional supervisor with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northwest and Alaska restoration center, says smaller habitat areas that encircle the Sound are the next targets for cleanup.

“Working in the urban environment, our goal is to get essentially a pearl necklace of sites that can actually help connect the species that are migrating through, salmon in particular,” Steger said.

And the message that was repeated again and again is that despite millions spent, habitat is still being lost at a greater rate than it is being restored in Puget Sound. McCarthy said she wants to see that turned around.

“Restoration is important, but if the pace of decline is outpacing the pace of restoration, then you need to do something different. And you need to add on to the efforts that are underway,” she said.  

McCarthy says she’s eager to do whatever she can to help the work of the Puget Sound Caucus. Its goal is to get federal status for the Sound as a “great water body” protected under the Clean Water Act. That would put it on par with places like Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes and provide a stable source of funding for cleanup.

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