Duwamish River: Have a say in cleaning up Seattle's biggest toxic waste dump


Picture 12,000 dump-truck loads of dirt – enough to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools. This dirt contains some pollution -- but no one is really sure how much.

Swept downstream each year into Seattle’s biggest toxic-waste site, the Duwamish River – this mountain of dirt looms large as the public gets a chance this week to weigh in on how to clean up the part of the river set to be rehabilitated under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program.



Photo by Paul Joseph Brown

To see more photos of the Duwamish,go to

Seattle, King County, The Boeing Co. and the Port of Seattle – all major polluters of the Duwamish over the years – have laid out 11 plans that aim to clean up decades of accumulated toxic goop in the river. To scoop out some of the mess and bury at least some of the rest beneath clean sand, gravel and rock, the pricetags range from spending $230 million over 24 years to expending $1.3 billion over 43 years. 

The most controversial issues are related: Does the river need to be so clean that people can eat seafood from it regularly? And if so, does that mean polluted rainwater runoff flowing off a massive area of south King County – and bringing with it at least some of those 12,000 truckloads of dirt – must be cleaned up at an even higher price?

Saving salmon means spreading risks among diverse populations, important new study says

Saving imperlied salmon in the Pacific Northwest means focusing a lot more on the genetic quality of the fish and a lot less on the quantity of fish cranked out in hatcheries, suggest the authors of a groundbreaking new study in the prestigious science journal Nature.

The notion that spawning lots of salmon in hatcheries could actually impede efforts to bring back struggling wild runs is not a new one. The science on that is solid. But the new study, which focused on the success of salmon runs in Alaska’s hatchery-less Bristol Bay, is “a game-changer,” according to the University of Washington team that produced the research.

Here’s why: The new study documents how Bristol Bay for more than half a century has consistently produced fishable sockeye salmon runs. That’s because in a natural system like Western Alaska, the existence of so many different runs that reproduce in different nooks and crannies of the ecosystem ensures that – whatever happens – some salmon runs will thrive. Runs that do well in cold, wet years are winners sometimes. Other times, when temperature and rainfall are relatively mild, runs better suited to those conditions will boom.

But every year, at least some runs will do well. It’s all about spreading out the risk.

Think of the varied salmon runs of Bristol Bay like a financial portfolio well-positioned to endure whatever goes down on Wall Street: stocks that take advantage of upturns, bonds that hold value in down times and maybe some real estate or pig belly futures or gold bullion thrown in for good measure.

Obama administration to skeptical judge: Bush's salmon-rescue plan is A-OK

To highlight yet another example of how the Obama administration's environmental policies don't always look that different from the Bush administration's, note that today the National Marine Fisheries Service tried to assure a skeptical federal judge that a Bush-era salmon-rescue plan was just fine -- even though it ruled out disabling dams on the Snake River.

For years, U.S. District Judge James Redden in Portland has been ruling that the Bush administration's blueprint to bring back struggling salmon runs on the Snake and Columbia rivers just didn't measure up. When environmentalists, tribes, sportfishing interests and the state of Oregon complained that the Obama-era Fisheries Service plan was no better than Bush's, Redden gave the agency three months to review the plan.

A pivotal question is whether four dams on the Snake River -- which produced about 5 percent of the Pacific Northwest's electricity, last I checked -- should be "breached," meaning partially removed to let the river flow more freely again. The dams and the changes they cause in the river kill some of the small salmon migrating to sea there.

After a three-month review, the Fisheries Service said the Bush-era plan needed only minor modifications. It refused to start the years-long planning process that would be required to breach the dams. It didn't even budge on a lesser step: letting more water flow through the dams without producing electricity -- "spill" -- to help the fish.

The best quote of the day -- and even this is a tired analogy, bearing witness to the tenure of this controversy -- came from Nicole Cordan, a campaigner with Save Our Wild Salmon:

Want to strike a blow on behalf of salmon for Earth Day? Get cracking on Corps' of Engineers rule change

If you want to strike a blow on behalf of imperiled salmon in honor of Earth Day, you better get cracking – there’s a deadline of Saturday to comment on a proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that critics say would undermine efforts to bring back the icon of the Northwest. 

We’ll probably do a proper news story on this at some point, but there isn’t time for that before the comment deadline, so I’ll tell you what I’ve learned so far:

The Army Corps is responsible for the levees that are intended to keep rivers from spilling outside their banks, causing flooding. And the agency is pretty convinced it should prohibit any trees or even large bushes on the levees. The Corps claims – and this is apparently at the heart of the disagreement – that trees’ roots destabilize levees. People who want the trees left on the levees think just the opposite, that the roots help hold the levee soils together. The Corps admits the science is murky. 

Now, trees on levees are important to salmon for a number of reasons. Among them: Trees and bushes shade the waterways, keeping them cool, as salmon need. They also are home to bugs that fall in the water and are eaten by young salmon. And vegetation helps slurp up and filters polluted stormwater before it reaches the waterway.

The Corps, though, is proposing that plants and trees be chopped down once their trunks reach two inches in diameter.

This became something of a fixation for the Corps after the miserable performance of levees in and around New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Doug Osterman is the guy who called this to our attention. He’s the Green-Duwamish-Central Puget Sound watershed coordinator for the King County government. The Corps’ rule against trees on levees led to toppling more than 1,000 of them already.

Thousands of lost crab pots in Puget Sound harm marine wildlife

Sitting on the floor of Puget Sound are thousands of pounds of derelict fishing gear. Lost fishing gear in a large body of water doesn't really sound like a big deal at first, but when looked at a bit more closely the effects can be shocking.

Jennifer“Derelict fishing gear in Puget Sound is a problem. There is an estimated - maybe - 15,000 crab pots that have been lost in the last 5 years in Puget Sound,”  Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, told the Agriculture and Natural Resources committee earlier this week, in support of House Bill 2593.

If passed, the measure would direct the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to solicit a $2 donation every time a recreational fishing license is purchased. The money would go into a grant program that would fund organizations to remove derelict shellfish pots.

In addition to being essentially garbage at the bottom of Puget Sound, derelict crap pots have an enormous impact on the marine ecosystem. Lost crab pots continue to catch and kill crabs long after the bait is gone, as well as other marine life, for up to two years. Crab larvae is also a large portion of Chinook salmon diet in certain areas of Puget Sound.

“The average lost crab pot will catch 30 crabs in a year and will kill 21 of those crabs," Ginny Broadhurst of the Northwest Straights Commission told the committee. "That amounts to about 256,000 crabs that are wasted annually."

The Northwest Straights Commission has received $4.6 million in stimulus money to retrieve derelict fishing gear in Puget Sound.

Rita Hibbard's picture

Frozen salmon have smaller carbon footprint than fresh

Eat your frozen salmon. Preferably wild, frozen salmon.

rita_hibbardwebA new study out of Portland shows that frozen salmon consume less energy from net to table than do fresh. And farmed salmon “have a heavy hidden demand on fossil fuels,” the study’s authors said, because the feed can be either forage fish, which would be more efficiently fed directly to people, or corn and soy, which require fuel for growing and harvest.

"We said, 'Eat wild salmon,'" Astrid Scholz, vice president of knowledge systems at Ecotrust and one of the report's authors, told The Oregonian's Abby Haight. "But it made me a little uneasy.... There's something wrong about catching an Alaska salmon, putting it on a helicopter, and then putting it on a jet to Moscow and then to New York so someone can eat their $50 dinner of fresh Copper River salmon."

Ecotrust examined the carbon footprint of catching, harvesting and transporting wild salmon around the world. They found that flash-freezing at sea and shipping later used less energy. Container ships are the most environmentally friendly transportation, the study showed. Most salmon sold around the world, however, are fresh, and never frozen.

For instance, salmon that are flash-frozen at sea can be transported by freighter or train, which uses significantly less fossil fuel than jets. Troll-caught fish burn diesel fuel as ships chase fish across the seas. An Alaska salmon caught by a purse seiner, however, has a low carbon impact, Scholz said.

The study could have broad implications on consumer choices for seafood, Haight writes.

Obama team witholds scientists' names in Columbia Basin salmon plan

Just two days ago, InvestigateWest reported that environmentalists were unhappy with the Obama administration's barely tweaked version of a Bush-era rescue plan for critically endangered salmon of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The administration, including former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, who as commerce secretary is boss of the agency responsible for salmon  recovery, has said its updated plan is backed by "sound science."

So now environmentalists are asking: Who are these scientists, anyway? So far, no one's saying.

As part of its review process, the administration called on independent scientists to comment on the plan, said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service. But the names of these scientists have not yet been released. Gorman said he knew there had been some discussion about privacy issues, but he did not know how the situation was being resolved. He referred us to Fisheries Service contact David Miller in Washington, D.C., who has not yet returned an InvestigateWest phone call.

Save Our Wild Salmon, an alliance of salmon advocates including enviros, fishermen, scientists and others, has closely followed the Columbia Basin salmon story and recently released its own "Top 10" list of ways to improve the 2008 plan -- many of which did not make it into the updated version.

Natalie Brandon, communications director for Save Our Wild Salmon, said the group has asked repeatedly for the names of the scientists involved in the plan, and the analysis that led to their decision.

Obama team reveals plan to save the Columbia Basin's salmon

One of the Northwest's most hotly contested salmon rescue plans was unveiled today by the Obama administration, and to the dismay of many environmentalists -- it doesn't stray far from Bush's 2008 proposal, reports Matthew Preusch of the Oregonian.

Obama and his team had until today to make changes to a Bush-era formula for protecting endangered runs of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia River Basin, tackling a long-running dispute on how to balance energy needs with salmon conservation. The new plan, called a biological opinion and required by the Endangered Species Act, in many ways, defends the old one, finding it to be "fundamentally sound." Said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who dealt with salmon issues and was criticized by environmentalists when he was Washington governor for trying to appease agricultural interests:

This biological opinion, backed by sound science and tremendous state and tribal support, will help preserve the vibrancy and vitality of the Columbia and Snake River basins for generations to come.

The Columbia River has blessed the region's residents with cheap hydroelectric power and broad navigation routes, but the area's federally protected salmon have seen far better days. Environmentalists say that four dams on the Snake River in particular are derailing salmon recovery efforts, which have not improved since the mid 1980s, and U.S. District Court Judge James Redden, who has thrown out previous  Bush administration plans, has agreed -- more or less. In 2005, he ordered the feds to temporarily increase the amount of water spilling from the dams.