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Surviving on the Duwamish

09/28/2007

Seattle is home to one of the most contaminated industrial waste sites in the country.

RASMUSSEN: "You can actually still walk out and as you step down you can see the petroleum ooze out of the ground."

In today's segment, a look at cleanup on the River.



TRANSCRIPT

RASMUSSEN: "I see people coming down here and you know they, they throw balls out into the river for their dogs you know and that type of thing. Well the soil down here is contaminated, right? "

JAMES RASMUSSEN IS A MEMBER OF THE DUWAMISH TRIBAL COUNCIL AND PRESIDENT OF THE GREEN–DUWAMISH WATERSHED ALLIANCE. WE'RE DOWN AT T–107, A LITTLE PARK ON THE DUWAMISH RIVER, RIGHT NEXT TO KELLOGG ISLAND.

RASMUSSEN: "And so their dogs you know they go out and they run around and they get all this stuff in their fur and they go into their car and then they go home. This is a trail of pollutants that goes straight from the river to their home."

AND WE'RE NOT JUST TALKING STAINS ON YOUR CARPET OR MUD IN THE BACKSEAT OF YOUR CAR. THE MAIN POLLUTANTS HERE ARE PCBS AND PHTHALATES. PCBS ARE CARCINOGENIC. THEY GET STORED UP IN THE FLESH OF THE FISH AND CRAB THAT LIVE IN THE RIVER, MAKING THEM UNSAFE TO EAT.

PHTHALATES CAUSE CANCER TOO. BUT THEY'RE ALSO A REPRODUCTIVE TOXIN, CAUSING THINGS LIKE EARLY SEXUAL MATURATION IN YOUNG WOMEN. OR SHRINKING PENIS SIZE IN ADOLESCENT BOYS. THESE CHEMICALS WERE ACTIVELY DUMPED INTO THE RIVER FOR YEARS.

RASMUSSEN: "What are we talking, about 1918 when this river was actually straightened out and then, then businesses started moving in? The early, the early way that you got rid of nasty stuff back then, was you dug a hole and you threw stuff in the hole and you covered the hole back up. "

THE ENVIRONMENTAL LAWS OF THE 1970S OUTLAWED CHEMICALS LIKE PCBS. DECADES LATER, THE RIVER RECEIVED SUPERFUND STATUS, IDENTIFYING IT AS A NATIONAL PRIORITY FOR ENVIRONMENTAL CLEANUP.

CUMMINGS: "The entire lower Duwamish River, a stretch of about five and a half miles, is the superfund site. It's, it's what we call a 'mega site.'"

BJ CUMMINGS IS COMMUNITY COORDINATOR FOR THE DUWAMISH RIVER CLEANUP COALITION. SHE'S BEEN WORKING ON CLEANING UP THE RIVER FOR 14 YEARS.

CUMMINGS: "This stretch of waterfront along Boeing Plant 2 is um the largest toxic hotspot that we have on the river. PCBs, heavy metals like lead and mercury. Plant 2 has got it all."

DURING WORLD WAR II, BOEING MANUFACTURED THE B–17 BOMBER AT PLANT 2, JUST ACROSS THE RIVER FROM SOUTH PARK. A NEW PLANE ROLLED OFF THE ASSEMBLY LINE EVERY HOUR.

THE METAL IN EACH PLANE HAD TO BE CLEANED IN A HOT BATH OF STRONG SOLVENTS. THOSE CHEMICALS, ALONG WITH HEAVY METALS, CYANIDE, AND PETROLEUM PRODUCTS, SPREAD OUTWARD FROM THE PLANT, SEEPING INTO THE GROUND AND THE RIVER. I VISITED PLANT 2 WITH KIRK THOMSON, DIRECTOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL AFFAIRS FOR BOEING.

THOMSON: "So, so lemme describe what we're looking at here. What we have is we have rubble and concrete rubble from, from just simply breaking up the foundations of the buildings and, and uh isolating it."

BOEING IS IN THE PROCESS OF DEMOLISHING ALL THE OLD BUILDINGS STILL STANDING ON THIS HUNDRED ACRE CAMPUS. THE PLAN IS TO REPLACE OLD MANUFACTURING STRUCTURES WITH MODERN FACILITIES FOR HIGH TECH RESEARCH AND DESIGN. BUT FIRST, THE COMPANY HAS TO CLEAN UP THE REMNANTS OF THE HAZARDOUS CHEMICALS THAT HAVE BEEN USED ON THIS SITE SINCE 1936.

THOMSON: "To the right over here what we have is we have some soil that is, that, that we're testing to make sure that it's not contaminated."

ACCORDING TO THE EPA, CONTAMINATION FROM SEVERAL BOEING FACILITIES IN THE AREA HAS FORMED AN UNDERGROUND TOXIC PLUME. GROUNDWATER MOVING THROUGH THE SOIL PUSHES THE CHEMICALS OUT INTO THE RIVER. KIRK AND I ARE STANDING IN THE MIDDLE OF A TOXIC STEW.

THOMSON: "At lot of these things you know, you just can't see 'em you can't smell 'em you have to test for it. So you can see we have the barriers here so that we don't have any sediments get away from us."

ACROSS THE COUNTRY, MANY SUPERFUND SITES ARE ORPHANED. THERE'S NO MONEY LEFT IN THE PROGRAM, AND THE COMPANIES THAT ORIGINALLY CREATED THE POLLUTION ARE OUT OF BUSINESS, OR CAN'T BE FORCED TO PAY FOR REMOVAL. BUT HERE ON THE DUWAMISH THE FOUR PARTIES RESPONSIBLE FOR THE CONTAMINATION – BOEING, THE CITY, THE COUNTY, AND THE PORT – HAVE AGREED TO PAY FOR CLEANUP.

DEALING WITH POLLUTED MATERIALS ON LAND IS RELATIVELY STRAIGHTFORWARD, BUT CONTAMINATION THAT'S ACTUALLY IN THE DUWAMISH RIVER CAN BE A BIT TRICKIER. THERE'S NO WAY TO DATE CONTAMINANTS, AND THE SOURCE OF POLLUTION IS OFTEN UNCLEAR. WATER FLOWS DOWNWARD INTO THE WATERWAY FROM ALL OVER THE RIVER VALLEY.

JUST DOWNRIVER FROM PLANT 2 IS THE FIRST WATER BASED SITE THAT WAS SLATED FOR CLEANUP UNDER THE SUPERFUND LISTING. ONE CHALLENGE HERE IS PHYSICALLY GETTING THE POLLUTED SEDIMENTS OUT OF THE RIVER.

CUMMINGS: "If you're going down through ten or twenty feet of water to pull up mud at the bottom of the river, bring it back up through the water column and then get rid of it, how do you do that without making a mess?"

CLEANUP AT THIS SITE BEGAN IN 2003. BUT THE TECHNOLOGY USED TO REMOVE THE SEDIMENTS WAS DESIGNED FOR CLEAN MUD, NOT HAZARDOUS WASTE.

CUMMINGS: "As the dredging began you could actually just watch the contaminated mud, shovel full after shovel full after shovel full, being spilled back into the river. And in the end, areas that had actually been determined to be clean before cleanup were dirty after."

ONE WAY TO REMOVE CONTAMINATION IS TO BUILD A RETAINING WALL. BARRIERS CALLED SHEET PILE ARE SUNK INTO THE MUD, WITH THE TOPS STICKING OUT ABOVE THE WATER. THE WATER WITHIN THOSE WALLS IS DRAINED, AND THEN YOU CAN SAFELY REMOVE THE SEDIMENTS. BUT NOT EVERYBODY IS EXCITED ABOUT CLEANUP ON THE DUWAMISH.

CUMMINGS: "In South Park there is a huge concern over gentrification of the neighborhood if the river is cleaned up."

FELS: "I think it should be cleaned up. Obviously you don't want cancerous chemicals in there. But what has kept it in the last 30 years in sort of suspended animation isn't gonna keep it that way once, once it gets cleaned up. {behind narrator} So across the street here we have sort of low industrial places. "

DON FELS MAKES PUBLIC ART. HE DECORATED THE PARK AT T–107 WITH SCULPTURES THAT TELL THE HISTORY OF THE AREA.

FELS: "As soon as the river is cleaned you won't see the Fog Tight Meter Seal Company across the street. Because the land'll be worth so much money that they'll sell it out and move further south to Kent, and somebody'll put a condo there."

ENVIRONMENTAL WORK HERE IS NOT JUST ABOUT GETTING RID OF CONTAMINATED MUD. CONSERVATIONISTS WORKING ON THE HILL UP ABOVE THE DUWAMISH ARE FACING YET ANOTHER PROBLEM

.

LAPOINTE: "This is all Himalayan blackberry. If we wanna walk back in here I can show you."

EARTHCORP'S CHRIS LAPOINTE HAS BEEN FIGHTING BLACKBERRIES IN THIS GREENBELT FOR 3 YEARS NOW.

LAPOINTE: "If you get into the thick of it it's 6 to 7 or 8 feet tall. {behind narrator:} When we first started working here this blackberry extended all the way to the trail that we were just on, so we had groups come through this area, clear out all the blackberry, and then they went through the same process that sheet mulching once they removed all the blackberry, and the blackberry pretty much creates a monoculture. "

EARLY SEATTLE SETTLERS BROUGHT IN NONNATIVE PLANTS TO REMIND THEM OF HOME. BUT WITH FRESHLY CLEARED LAND AND NO NATURAL ENEMIES, PLANTS LIKE BLACKBERRY AND ENGLISH IVY WENT WILD. THEY CHOKED OUT THE NATIVE PLANTS.

LAPOINTE: "Birds eat the berries of ivy when the ivy's growing up a tree or they eat the blackberries and they go to the bathroom, the, the seeds are already fertilized and ready to go and um so they grow really quickly."

JP: "Yeah they're definitely popping up all over the place."

LAPOINTE: "I see that and I don't get discouraged because I walk over here, and I see this, {behind narrator:} you know this area starting to fill in and we don't have that much blackberry or anything growing. "

HE'S POINTING TO A SMALL AREA WHERE NATIVE PLANTS LIKE SWORD FERN AND THIMBLEBERRY ARE STARTING TO COME BACK.

LAPOINTE: "This is, I mean this is really promising when I see that, it makes me realize that yeah it is important work and, we are making progress."

JAMES RASMUSSEN ALSO FEELS HOPEFUL ABOUT THE FUTURE OF THE DUWAMISH.

RASMUSSEN: "If you walk downtown, you'll look at a little crack in the sidewalk and you'll see grass. Grow through that crack. All it needs, all nature needs, is a little crack, and that's kind of what we've done on the river is these little cracks, and it's come back."

THOSE LITTLE CRACKS ARE FLOURISHING. YOU CAN SEE OSPREY BUILDING NESTS UP ON TOP OF LAMP POSTS IN INDUSTRIAL LOTS UP AND DOWN THE RIVER. THE SALMON RUNS ARE GROWING. KELLOGG ISLAND WAS COMPLETELY DEFORESTED JUST A COUPLE OF DECADES AGO, BUT NOW IT'S GREEN AGAIN. THE TREES CAME BACK COMPLETELY ON THEIR OWN.

RASMUSSEN: "You know and it's a beautiful place. Just don't walk on the shoreline too much, and if you do, make sure that you clean yourself off really well, and that's really important. Um, because this is nasty stuff, you know. And hopefully down the road it won't be nasty anymore."

ON THE DUWAMISH, I'M JESSICA PARTNOW FOR KUOW 949 SEATTLE.

© Copyright 2007, KUOW News

11.14.18

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