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EPA proposal starts a new chapter in Duwamish Superfund cleanup

A person stands on a bridge with a fishing pole. In the background are tugs and cranes along an industrial waterway.
The Spokane Street Bridge on the East Waterway off the port of Seattle's Harbor Island is a popular fishing spot in the middle of a Superfund cleanup area.

The Environmental Protection Agency released a long-awaited proposed cleanup plan last week for the East Waterway in Seattle. It runs along the east side of Harbor Island, at the mouth of the Lower Duwamish River, which empties into Elliot Bay and Puget Sound. A 60-day public comment period on the plan begins on Friday.

It’s part of the larger Harbor Island Superfund site, which was placed on the EPA’s National Priorities List in 1983. High levels of PCBs, mercury and 25 other pollutants from more than a century of industry and urbanization have contaminated the sediment in the river and its food web.

The EPA’s overarching goal is to dramatically reduce that load so that the river stops posing a risk to human health. The agency administers cleanup of the Harbor Island Superfund site through seven smaller sites, the East Waterway is the last of these to receive a clean up decision.

“We know despite a lot of warnings by the Department of Health, the reality is folks are fishing and folks are consuming those fish today, not just for recreation, but also for subsistence,” Casey Sixkiller, the EPA Region 10 administrator, told KNKX.

Sixkiller has walked the waterway multiple times and seen for himself the popular fishing area at the Spokane Street Bridge. He said that with the East Waterway parcel, the agency is taking its most aggressive cleanup approach in the Duwamish to date.

An aspirational cleanup plan

The agency's plan includes dredging more than 80% of the waterway, and then taking the toxic mud to landfills. Tons of sediment and contaminated material will be removed over a period of approximately 10 years.

“That piece that we're not dredging is because we can't get dredge equipment underneath – you know, in between pilings and other areas,” Sixkiller said.

The dredging will take years because it can only be carried out during so-called “fish windows,” when endangered salmon that migrate through the river and the straightened canals of the industrial waterway won’t be disturbed by the work.

An aerial view of a rectangular waterway with a freeway crossing over it at the bottom of the photo, ships docked under cranes and the Seattle skyline in the distance.
The East Waterway, at the mouth of Seattle's Lower Duwamish River, which empties into Elliot Bay and Puget Sound. It is part of the Harbor Island Superfund site.

An important goal in the preferred alternative plan up for comment is the target for Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. These are the original toxic “forever chemicals” – man-made for use as refrigerants and insulation, they don’t break down.

PCBs are known to cause liver damage and probably cancer. They were banned from U.S production in 1972. Currently the average level in the waterway is 460 parts per billion. The goal is to get that down to just two parts per billion – or what’s known as “natural background level."

“So really beginning to restore it to what it once was,” Sixkiller said.

He added that this aggressive approach started on another portion of the Superfund cleanup site, the part called Lower Duwamish. In 2014, during the Obama administration, the EPA published a final cleanup plan for the Lower Duwamish. It established the standard ultimately used in the proposed East Waterway plan.

Much of this plan is aspirational though, Sixkiller admitted. Beyond getting contaminants out through dredging, ongoing contamination continues from sources upriver. The runoff is not just from industry, but also from growing cities and towns in the region.

Changing administrations, changing standards

During the Trump administration, with the ongoing runoff in mind, the EPA set much lower goals for the East Waterway. However, after lobbying from the local community, Sixkiller said the agency came to agree that there should be one standard as the goal for the entire cleanup.

But they also agreed that this should be an interim plan, to be revisited in ten years, since they don’t yet have the technology to achieve PCB levels of two parts per billion.

“Is it achievable today? No,” Sixkiller said.

“But I really believe that this is a moment where, you know, by stating a long term goal of achieving two parts per billion….by working with the Port, City of Seattle, King County, State of Washington, Department of Ecology and other users of the Duwamish River, if we really focus on that and stay values-aligned, I believe we can achieve it,” he said.

A year ago, when his agency released its first draft of the East Waterway plan, its goals for PCBs and many other chemicals were much less stringent. The target for PCBs was 15 times higher than in the current plan, according to Paulina López, executive director of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition.

It was a plan they fought vehemently, submitting an editorial to the Seattle Times.

Now, her group has dropped its opposition and praised Sixkiller for his visionary approach. López said the new plan recognizes the importance of community well-being and environmental justice.

A one-river approach to cleanup

“What we wanted is: treat it as a one-river approach -- and definitely working very closely with Administrator Sixkiller made a difference. He had this vision and approach of protecting the one river, which is the Duwamish, instead of looking at different health standards for both,” López said.

She agreed that the interim plan makes sense, because it’s not yet clear how the vision of a healthy Duwamish River will be realized. But it also didn’t make sense to base big cleanup decisions on the model the EPA was using.

“In ten years, we will have a lot of more answers,” López said.

One example she gave is ongoing work to restrict the newer class of "forever chemicals" known as PFAS (per- and polyfluorinated substances.) Fast-changing science might also present new solutions to micro-plastics and climate change.

“If you think about climate change, all the different components controlling sources of pollution, you cannot make decisions on assumptions right now,” she said.

East Waterway Terminal in 1915. More than a century of industrial development has contaminated the East Waterway and Duwamish River.
Engineering Department Photographic Negatives
Seattle Municipal Archives
East Waterway Terminal in 1915. More than a century of industry and urbanization have contaminated the sediment in the Duwamish river and its food web.

A victory for environmental justice

The EPA’s proposed East Waterway plan is a kind of victory, López said, for community feedback and for environmental justice. It also comes at a time when new laws like the state’s HEAL Act are providing a solid foundation for their efforts.

It feels like finally we're being heard – you know, all these years of advocacy and commitment are paying off,” she said.

But the work is far from over. López said groups like hers have to stay vigilant and on top of all the consultations and negotiations they’ve fought to be a part of – and to learn how to do them effectively. The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition is working with the Port of Seattle on practice roundtables.

“How do we develop trust? And how do we carry on with accountability and transparency and acknowledging power imbalances?” López asked.

She’s concerned that the concept of environmental justice could become an empty phrase, not delivering on the promise of actual cleanup with meaningful standards that the community supports.

On the Duwamish, she said that means sticking to more protective health standards and acknowledging cumulative impacts of industries and urbanization.

And ultimately, this is not just about the fish or the people on the front lines of this environmental battle. López sees the goals set for the Duwamish protecting the health of the entire region.

“Once the ones that are impacted the most are better off, everyone will be better off and everything will be better,” López said. “It's not impossible. It's just the right thing to do — to restore and to relieve all these injustices that we have been going through for years.”

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