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Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition calls on EPA to maintain standards set in 2014

A polluted river runs through the heart of industrial Seattle. The Lower Duwamish waterway was designated a Superfund site in 2001. Now the community coalition that has spent years helping shape the cleanup plan for this 5-mile stretch of the river says that plan is under assault.  

For 13 years, the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalitionworked with federal regulators at the EPA to reach a pact on how to remove and contain polluted sediment. That agreement came out in 2014.

“This was the bargain that was set with the community. The community was actually heard,” says James Rasmussen, the coalition’s superfund manager.

Now he says the cleanup is under threat.“A triple threat” is depicted on their website. Among those issues is a proposal to drastically reduce cleanup requirements for the East Waterway –  which is heavily used by immigrants and native tribes who fish there. It’s located where the river meets Elliot Bay.

Rasmussen says this latest issue propelled the DRCC to launch a petition drive because they say federal regulators have “caved to pressure from polluters” and are letting responsible parties meet lower standards than were agreed to in 2014.

Regarding the East Waterway – which is one of the last sections of the cleanup – Rasmussen says the EPA has created an artificial boundary.

And I'm sorry. If you're cleaning up a kitchen, you've got to clean the whole kitchen. You just can't clean part of the kitchen and say, ‘Well, I'm not going to clean this part that much,’ ” he says.

The EPA says it will be seeking input on the plan for the East Waterway later this year – and that it is currently accepting comments on two other issues raised by the coalition.

First: the EPA’s proposal to lessen requirements for cleanup of cancer-causing hydrocarbons, or cPAHs. The agency says the latest science shows the need for a re-assessment of their toxicity – and they’re proposing leaving as much as seven higher levels in place. But the DRCC says independent scientists disagree.

In February, the EPA invited input from communities, stakeholders, agencies and tribes on this change. The agency is now reviewing the public comments and says it expects to issue a response and final decision later this year.

Second: the EPA’s response to cleanup action taken byone of the legacy polluters, Jorgensen Forge.The steel and aluminum company failed to remove some of the targeted pollution – leaving behind toxic metals and PCBs – when it removed sediment in 2014. The company was fined, and a new cleanup order was prepared. DRCC says now the EPA is proposing to allow Jorgensen Forge “to leave behind much of their mess.”

In response to a request from DRCC, the EPA says it extended its original public comment period on the Jorgensen Forge options from 30 to 90 days. The agency is also hosting an online informational meeting to answer community questions on Wednesday, Aug. 25.

In a statement, EPA spokesman Mark MacIntyre says the agency welcomes the community’s input on its ongoing efforts to clean up the Lower Duwamish Waterway and that they factor public input into their decisions, along with the best available science.

He says they have not made final decisions about any of the three areas raised by the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition.

“We know how important the Duwamish is to those who live closest to it, those who fish there and those who want to be able to safely use and enjoy it. We want to keep working together constructively to improve the health of the river for all,” the statement says.

DRCC executive director Paulina Lopez is not convinced.

We’ve been waiting for this cleanup for the longest time, and it’s here 2021. And we’re still advocating for the same reasons we did at the beginning, she says.

“We’re going to keep them accountable to what they have promised, but we shouldn’t have to be working so hard towards it.”

She says if the EPA doesn’t insist on keeping the 2014 standards, elected officials can and should. DRCC's campaign calls on the public to put pressure on city, county and port officials as well as sign a public petition on 

She says this is about environmental justice for the diverse communities who live on the banks of Seattle’s only river – but also for the entire region, whose health depends on a healthy waterway.

“Everybody should join, everybody should be demanding for what we were promised already, which was a clean river to the standards that the community will be able to swim, to fish,” Lopez says.

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