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Clean Water: The Next Act: Balancing Health And Industry

Katie Campbell

This fall marks the 40th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act – a piece of legislation that changed the way water  in this country is regulated and protected.

Pollution was supposed to be curtailed so that fish from all the waters in America would be safe for people to eat. 40 years later, though, many waterways still bear fish too tainted to consume safely.

One of the most polluted waterways in the Northwest is Seattle’s Duwamish River. The lower part of the river was declared a Superfund site in 2001. That means the polluters have to work with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean it up.

More than ten years later the EPA and the responsible parties are close to proposing a clean up plan. But there’s still some debate about how clean this river should be.

There’s a line out the door at the South Park Neighborhood food bank early on Saturday morning.

This is a community tucked in between a major highway and a bend in the Duwamish River. The people here are mostly Asian and Hispanic.

Paulina Lopez is from South Park and volunteers at the food bank. She’s checking people in and stamping the backs of their hands so they can go in and get fresh produce, milk, toilet paper and other necessities.

Even with these supplies, Lopez knows some of the people that come to the food bank eat what they catch in the Duwamish, even though there are signs warning against it. Many of the crabs, shellfish and bottom-feeding fish here are contaminated with carcinogens.

A woman in a pink sweatshirt with little white stars walks up to the counter to check in.

“My name is Aun Le. I live here, my house (laughing)." She sometimes goes with her friends and family to fish. And they all eat the fish.

“We don’t have a good sense of the numbers but we know there are people from a variety of different racial and ethnic backgrounds who fish on the river.” Dr. Bill Daniell is an associate professor at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health.

He’s studying the health impacts for people living along the Duwamish as part of the superfund clean up process. These are some of the poorest communities in Seattle.

“The concern is that these are populations that, on average, many of these groups already suffer or experience health disparities or disparities in health risk and is it really fair?”

That right there is the big picture question for this clean up. Should this river be clean enough for people like Aun Le to eat out of? How much money should be spent trying to get there?

The current clean up plan favored by the EPA and responsible parties would cost 300 million dollars. It would include dredging contaminated muck from some parts of the river bottom and capping it over with clean sediment.

That plan could get pollutant levels down by 90 percent over the next 17 years.

Stephanie Jones-Stebbins is the director of seaport environmental and planning for the Port of Seattle. The Port is one of the responsible parties involved in the clean up. I took the question about Aun Le to her.

“With the technology we have today we cannot reduce the risk from eating fish from the river to an unlimited amount. It’s an urban environment," she explains. "When the cleanup is done it will be at a similar level to other urban areas throughout the sound and throughout the country but there will be risk.”

Jones-Stebbins says that the river will get much cleaner, but at the end of the day, the Duwamish is an industrial waterway. "It’s the economic heart of the region. There’s 100,000 jobs that depend upon it. A good portion of the manufacturing jobs are right here.”

Balancing industrial, wildlife and human use on urban waterways is tricky and the Duwamish isn’t alone in her struggles. Urban areas like Portland’s Columbia River Slough and Idaho’s Boise River have public advisories against eating certain fish as well.

On the Duwamish work has already been done on four of the most polluted spots. The Port, along with King County, the Boeing Company and the city of Seattle are spending over 100 million dollars on the early stages of the clean up.

But it’s not just about cleaning up the old polluted spots. There are modern sources of contamination as well. Every time it rains contaminated storm water flows into the Duwamish from the surrounding 14 miles of industrial and residential areas.

Lori Cohen is the associate director of the superfund clean up program at the Environmental Protection Agency.

She says cleaning up stormwater is a broader and more diffuse problem that’s less easily dealt with than dredging old contaminated muck out of the bottom of a river. “Really it will be a societal decision as to how much we invest in stormwater controls to reduce the impacts to the Duwamish and really to other rivers throughout the country.”

But on the Duwamish Cohen acknowledges that storm water is far less of a problem than the industrial contamination from previous decades.

She says tackling the most polluted parts of the Superfund site is the first step. “We will make some significant progress in eliminating some of the most egregious hot spots that we see in the river and we believe that we will see significant reductions in contamination levels in fish and this will be an ongoing effort for many many years.”

Cohen says it’s impossible to determine how much those levels in fish will drop.

But of all the possible clean up plans the EPA is considering right now, none of them guarantee a river that is safe for regular fish consumption.

The EPA will open the doors for public comment on its proposed clean up plan for the Duwamish River in January.

Copyright 2012 EarthFix

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