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Clean Water: The Next Act - Seattle's Duwamish River

This fall marks the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act and over the next few month's EarthFix and Investigate West will be reporting on the Northwest's water. This ongoing special report begins with Seattle’s Duwamish River. 

It's been the industrial heart of the city for a century. It’s been straightened, filled and diked. During World War II thousands of airplanes were built there. Today cargo from around the world arrives in massive container ships, lining the mouth of the river. Industrial facilities dot its banks.

For many Seattleites, the Duwamish is an invisible river. But it’s not a quiet one. The river comes in the back door of the city to the west of I-5 - past stormwater outflows, marinas, rusting barges and heaps of scrap metal.

It escapes to Puget Sound beneath the West Seattle Bridge - between piles of shipping containers and giant cranes. But despite all that, this river is on the path to recovery.

Perhaps no one has been monitoring that recovery as closely as James Rasmussen and Chris Wilke. Wilke is the head of the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and Rasmussen is with the Duwamish River Clean up Coalition. We’re on a motorboat headed up the Duwamish.

“We’re about ready to cross under the Spokane Street Bridge," explains James Rasmussen. "Most people traveling to West Seattle don’t know that this is the Duwamish River because there’s no sign on this bridge.”

Rasmussen pulls out maps of the river. They are dotted with patches of grey red and yellow – representing high levels of arsenic, PCBs and dioxins. These are all dangerous pollutants - leftovers from this river’s industrial legacy.

But Rasmussen says things are looking up… slowly. “Ten being good and one being bad 30 years ago it was at a two, today it’s a four, which is a lot better than it was.”

Chris Wilke points to a concrete wall along the water’s edge.“We don’t see a lot of natural shoreline as it originally was. The entire estuary has been straightened and dredged to make way for large ships to come in here. Even still within this heavily developed landscape there actually are little pockets where they are restoring some more natural functions to the beach.”

So far the Boeing Corporation, The Port of Seattle and other responsible parties have put over $100 million into research and clean up on the Duwamish.

James Rasmussen says creatures are taking notice.  “We have a river otter down here now. Sometimes he’s here, sometimes at slip four. To see where the wildlife is starting to come back and where they go is fascinating to see.”

A few minutes later, as if on cue, a river otter lopes along the muddy beach, ducking under stormwater pipes and pilings.

Chris Wilke takes regular trips up and down the river and says he’s been seeing more river otters.

But he also sees repeat violators of the Clean Water Act. The act requires industrial facilities to get permits if they want to discharge into waterways.

There are more than two dozen industrial facilities on this river. They all have permits to release certain amounts of toxic substances, but many of them exceed those permits.

Here’s one example. The boat slows and comes alongside a recycling yard run by the Seattle Iron and Metal Company. A clawed excavator pivots back and forth on a heap of scrap metal, picking up the crushed bodies of rusted cars and old boats and flinging them like tin cans toward a massive grinder.

"When you grind up a car. See that? That’s the part that looks like mad max," says James Rasmussen. "It’s a good thing that they can recycle but we look at their piles and we look at where is the stormwater that’s coming off of this place, what is it being filled with?"

Chris Wilke says this is one of the dirtiest sites on the Duwamish. "Their monitoring shows that they are discharging lead, copper, zinc, oil and grease and other chemicals far in exceedence of their permit.”

The copper and zinc discharges here are many times above levels known to harm salmon that migrate through this part of the waterway.

The Department of Ecology has never fined Seattle Iron and Metal even though the company has repeatedly violated its discharge permit.

Puget Soundkeeper Alliance recently filed a lawsuit against the company under the Clean Water Act.

Seattle Iron and Metal refused to comment for this story.

The Department of Ecology classifies the Duwamish River as an impaired waterway. That means the agency is required to come up with a plan to clean it up.

This river’s not alone. The majority of the rivers tested by state environmental agencies in Idaho, Oregon and Washington are polluted enough to be listed as impaired waterways.

The Duwamish is known to be one of the most polluted rivers on that list. But James Rasmussen says all that attention will pay off. “A change is going on and no matter what there’s going to be a major change down here," says James Rasmussen. "How much of a major change and is it something that’s going to get us to where we really need to be is the question.”

The Duwamish is a river with an identity crisis. It’s an industrial waterway but it’s also home to various types of marine mammals and fish. People recreate on this river. Some even fish here.

It’s so polluted though that it’s been declared a superfund site. Now the responsible parties – including Boeing, the Port of Seattle and others - are working with state agencies and community members to decide just how clean this river needs to be for future generations.

Copyright 2012 EarthFix

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