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Bigger cleanup, but no end to fishing restrictions on the Duwamish

Seattle’s biggest toxic mess is going to take more cleanup than previously thought, federal officials said Tuesday in releasing their plan for the Duwamish River Superfund site. But when the cleanup is finished, people will still be warned against eating seafood from the river, officials acknowledged.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s final cleanup plan boosts by one-fifth the amount of river bottom to be dredged up and hauled away. In a draft plan released last year, EPA said it would require 84 acres of contaminated river bottom to be removed, while the final plan released Tuesday would expand that to 105 acres. The cost for the remaining work increases from $305 million to $342 million.

That accumulated pollution from a century of industrial activity, municipal sewage, and stormwater runoff contaminates not just the riverbed but also marine life. For decades, almost no fish or seafood caught in the river has been safe for people to eat, although authorities have been unable to keep people from fishing there.

Key questions left unanswered Tuesday were how safe Duwamish seafood will be after the cleanup, and to what degree people will ever again be able to safely eat the fish. In any case, the river cleanup will end up taking a full generation. The Duwamish was designated a Superfund site in 2001. About half the pollution has been dug out so far. Further dredging is expected to start in 2015 and last seven years. Then it will take another 10 years for fish pollution levels to be reduced to the maximum extent under the cleanup blueprint EPA selected, the agency said.

“We think this plan gets it right,” said Dennis McLerran, head of EPA’s Seattle-based Region 10. “This cleanup plan keeps the Duwamish River open for business and will reduce risks” to locals who fish for their dinner, people playing in the river and to Duwamish wildlife.

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EPA boosts required cleanup budget for Duwamish River Superfund site

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency today issued its long-awaited final decision about the extent of cleanup that will be required at the Duwamish River Superfund site — the biggest toxic waste site in Seattle.

Details are still emerging and the agency is conducting a news media briefing this hour. But it's clear that EPA has boosted cleanup requirements from the tentative plan the agency issued last year: The pricetag has gone from $305 million to $342 million. That's to be spent over seven years of active cleanup and 10 years of "natural recovery" that involves allowing sand, dirt and mud washed down the river to cover what the agency describes as low levels of contamination on portions of the river bottom.

The Boeing Co., King County, the city of Seattle and the Port of Seattle all lobbied to hold down cleanup costs, as InvestigateWest reported last month. Environmentalists, community groups and others banded together as the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition have pressed for a plan that would cost substantially more and would call for all the contaminated river bottom to be dug out and hauled away. That plan would have cost about $500 million.

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How government and Boeing fought to curtail Duwamish River cleanup

Photography: Paul Joseph Brown/ecosystemphoto.com

After a decade of studies that cost millions of dollars, the time had come for the people living around Seattle’s biggest toxic mess to tell the government what a cleanup should look like.

On a spring night in 2013, Spanish-speaking residents of south Seattle approached a microphone that sat beneath the basketball hoop at the South Park Community Center. One by one, they envisioned a new future for the Duwamish River and the neighborhoods it passes through. Today those neighborhoods of South Park and Georgetown are home to some of King County’s highest rates of hospitalization for childhood asthma. Locals regularly fish the river, despite government prohibitions due to high levels of toxic chemicals in seafood caught there.

Clean up as much as you can, the people said, overwhelmingly.

Member Exclusive: Fishing for answers in Duwamish River records

We just published our latest SIDEBAR — an exclusive monthly dispatch from inside our newsroom just for InvestigateWest members.

For August we have a piece by Executive Director Robert McClure about getting, and not getting, government records into the public eye:

State and federal freedom-of-information laws give investigative journalists a look behind the curtain at the internal workings of government. An essential tool, they allow us to help the public better understand what government is doing and saying on its behalf.

The people can better govern their governors, in other words.

So we were recently taken aback by how many documents the City of Seattle and King County withheld in one of our latest rounds of Freedom Of Information requests. The sheer volume of records withheld suggests an epic legal battle brewing over the Duwamish River cleanup.

To read the rest...

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With focus on toxics, Duwamish cleanup could leave other health problems unsolved

A view of downtown Seattle over the Duwamish Waterway
Paul Joseph Brown/InvestigateWest

If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency isn’t going to ensure Seattle’s Duwamish River is clean enough for needy residents to fish there for their dinner, the agency needs to ensure those people get fish some other way – even if that means supplying seafood through food banks. Or building clean urban fishing ponds. Or giving people shares in a seafood cooperative akin to a community-supported-agriculture operation.

That’s one thrust of a new report by health advocates commenting on the EPA’s proposed cleanup plan for the heavily polluted Duwamish, the first such “health impact assessment” on any Superfund site. The study also warns against potential gentrification of the riverside South Park and Georgetown neighborhoods; authors say a cleanup could hasten the already obvious demographic shift in the South Seattle neighborhoods, with wealthier and whiter residents edging out lower-income people unable to weather rising housing costs.

In all, the study touches on a broad array of the cleanup plan’s potential impacts, including effects on tribal identity, the labor market and family downtime.

These seemingly disparate observations and recommendations are embodied in a report released this week that challenges EPA’s traditional definition of health in past Superfund cleanups, one that focuses strongly on cancer-causing pollutants. This new study advocates adding social, cultural and even spiritual aspects of health into the mix.

The report zeros in on the four most affected populations – local residents, Indian tribes, non-tribal fishermen and local workers – to examine the potential unintended consequences of the agency’s plan on the very people it’s designed to help.

Residents are “worried that after they’ve worked so hard to clean up the river, they won’t be able to stay and enjoy the benefits,” study co-author Bill Daniell told the Seattle City Council during a presentation Monday.


Document: Duwamish Health Impact Assessment Advance Report

A May 13 report by health advocates cautioned that an exclusive focus on toxics in EPA's cleanup of the Duwamish River Superfund Site would overlook multiple other heath risks faced by the people who live, work and fish in South Seattle.

This Health Impact Assessment is an advance version published ahead of the June public comment deadline. For InvestigateWest's complete reporting on the report's release, including reactions from Seattle City Council, read our full story.


Duwamish Valley residents face health threats, study shows as EPA chooses Superfund cleanup plan

Debris along the Duwamish River.
Credit: Paul Joseph Brown/InvestigateWest

The residents of south Seattle’s 98108 ZIP code, some living cheek-by-jowl with the Duwamish River Superfund site, face a high degree of environmental health threats and are likely to live sicker and die younger than residents of other Seattle neighborhoods, says a new report by two nonprofit groups.

Researchers studied 10 representative Seattle ZIP codes and analyzed data to assign each a “cumulative health impact score” that considers pollution threats as well as socioeconomic and other factors. 98108 had the worst score of the ZIP codes studied, says the report by the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group and Just Health Action.

In this map from the report showing cumulative impact score by ZIP Code,
a darker color indicates a higher score.

The report admits that by focusing at the ZIP code level, the analysis may obscure even more worrisome threats affecting specific neighborhoods within the area, especially South Park and Georgetown.

“Duwamish Valley residents are more likely to live in poverty, be foreign born, have no health insurance or leisure time, and are more likely to be sick. Georgetown and South Park residents have up to a 13-year shorter life expectancy (at birth) than wealthier parts of Seattle,” the report says.

Researchers gathered data on number of indicators including the incidence of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, lung cancer and children with asthma; air pollution readings; the presence of sensitive populations of children and older people; hospitalization rates; availability of parks; and poverty rates.


Investigators to take new look at health effects of Duwamish cleanup

A view of downtown Seattle over the Duwamish Waterway
Paul Joseph Brown/InvestigateWest

Before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency submits its proposed cleanup plan for the Duwamish River Superfund site later this year, community health researchers are conducting a “health impact assessment” to figure out ways the cleanup could affect surrounding communities.

During the upcoming spring and summer months, researchers from University of Washington, Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition and Just Health Action will determine how people along the river are likely to be most affected by EPA’s cleanup. An environmental cleanup of the magnitude to be conducted on the Duwamish will undoubtedly make the river cleaner and healthier for humans and wildlife, but researchers want to learn more about the potential impact on communities, both positive and negative.

“We want to minimize the adverse effects and optimize the benefits for these communities,” said BJ Cummings, community health projects manager of the Cleanup Coalition.