Duwamish River

Duwamish neighborhoods are a 'food desert' in foodie Seattle -

Seattle has gained a national reputation as a haven for “foodies” – but there’s a “food desert” in its own back yard, ironically in an area that once helped feed a growing city.

The area near the banks of the Duwamish River south of Seattle is where the founder of the Pike Place Market had his original farm. Today, some yards in that area are so contaminated with dioxins in the dirt, the health department advises residents not to grow their own gardens. It’s a place where waves of tribes and immigrants continue to fish the river as they have for decades, but where PCB’s in the river bed have made resident fish no longer safe to eat.

After a century of industrial use, the lower Duwamish River now runs through one of the largest urban Superfund sites in the country. A recent examination of public health data by InvestigateWest revealed that residents who live in the vicinity face more chronic health problems than people who live in other parts of the county. Data show residents in the Duwamish communities are typically more overweight, and have higher incidence of diabetes and more deaths from heart disease. Life expectancy in the area is five years lower than for other, more affluent parts of King County, likely because of some combination of poverty, pollution, and lifestyle.

And food lies at the intersection of all those problems. Affordable nutrition– or lack of it – is at the heart of many of the health problems facing residents in the region along the Duwamish.


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 www.ecosystemphoto.com

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?

Daniel Lathrop's picture

Oil spill could threaten Puget Sound, Duwamish

A 65-foot vessel at Harbor Island began to sink and released diesel fuel into the water at the Port of Seattle this morning. The Department of Ecology sent me this press release, and I've been told an update is on the way:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – (Nov. 10, 2009 5:15 a.m.)

Larry Altose, Department of Ecology media relations
Lt. Jennifer Osburn, Coast Guard public affairs

Ecology, Coast Guard and Port of Seattle responding to Harbor Is. oil spill

(SEATTLE) – The Washington Department of Ecology, U.S. Coast Guard and the Port of Seattle are responding to an oil spill at the Harbor Island Marina in Seattle. A 65-foot vessel has partially sunk at its berth and is releasing diesel oil into the Duwamish Waterway.

More information about the spill will be provided as soon as it becomes available.


So, more information is developing, but this underscores the risks to urban waters like the Duwamish River and Puget Sound. (Harbor Island is at the mouth of the Duwamish where it flows into Elliot Bay.)

Not coincidentally, my InvestigateWest colleagues have covered both waterways extensively. Notably in this series on the Puget Sound (featuring work by Robert McClure and Lisa Stiffler) and this series on the Duwamish (featuring work by McClure).

-- Daniel Lathrop

Carol Smith's picture

Bringing back the River Jordan

Utah is contemplating restoring one of its great, but polluted, urban rivers - if it can find the money and leadership to do it. The Jordan River flows from Utah Lake to the Great Salt Lake, through 15 cities in three counties, writes Jeremiah Stettler of the Salt Lake Tribune. Along the way, it's been used as a dumping ground for everything from city sewers to slaughterhouses.

Now river advocates want to find a way to turn it back into a recreational and wildlife haven with bike paths, open space and clean water.

Urban restorations are notoriously difficult and complex. Look no further than Seattle's own Duwamish waterway, one of the country's largest Superfund sites, and the focus of much debate and effort over how to reclaim that historic river.

Other cities, including Los Angeles, Portland, Chicago, and San Jose have struggled with their own urban river politics.

These rivers, and there are many more like them, are important symbols. What happens to a river when it runs through a community speaks loudly about who lives there -both then, and now.