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Learning from the Duwamish River Communities

Seattle is a city built on water – its identity, its celebrated beauty, and much of its economic lifeblood comes from its relationship to Puget Sound and the rivers that flow into it.

But the Duwamish River, which runs through the center of Seattle’s urban industrial core, is not the one you see on post cards. Now named one of the largest Superfund sites in the country, it is also the river in the backyard of more than 38,000 of Seattle’s poorest and most diverse residents.

The goal of my 2010 National Health Fellowship project was to identify the community health issues that face the people living in two neighborhoods – Georgetown and South Park -- which face each other across the toxic river in the middle of the Superfund site. 

The thinking was that by identifying these problems, we could call out the issue of accountability, and more importantly point the way toward creative solutions for a portion of the population the greater Seattle community has historically ignored. The backdrop for the story was a looming multi-million dollar Superfund decision about how best to clean up the river, and to what extent.

The precipitating event for the story, though, was the closure of the bridge that links the two communities, effectively cutting off easy access to downtown Seattle a few miles away. To me it seemed the perfect metaphor for the attitude of the larger population toward those struggling to carve a life on the banks of the river that built the prosperous city down the road.


The chemicals within us

JenniferSitting before a Senate subcommittee is a young mother. She is slim, pretty, intelligent . . . and full of dangerous chemicals.

Molly Jones Gray of Seattle testified this week in Washington, D.C., regarding human exposure to toxic chemicals.  After participating in a study conducted by the Washington Toxics Coalition, a pregnant Gray was horrified to learn that her body contained a variety of dangerous chemicals. Gray said she was testifying not only on her own behalf, but also for her 7-month-old son Paxton. She told the Senate Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health:

On behalf of my son Paxton and all other children, I am asking for your help to lower our body burdens of chemicals that come between us and our health.

The Toxics Coalition conducted a study testing nine pregnant women from Washington, Oregon, and California for five groups of chemicals: phthalates, mercury, so-called “Teflon” chemicals known as perfluorinated compounds, bisphenol A, and the flame retardant tetrabromobisphenol A.

The study, entitled Earliest Exposures, examined the blood and urine of the nine women in their second trimester.

Feds dump mine waste in Idaho flood plain

The Northwest News Network produced this fantastic story for KUOW News about how the federal stimulus package has sped up the disposal of arsenic- and lead-contaminated mine spoils on a flood plain off I-90 in Northern Idaho.

The East Mission Flats Repository is a Superfund site designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to receive the remains of Idaho's toxic mining history despite being in a floodplain inundated just last year.  Community groups are concerned that the area will flood again, spreading more toxic metals into state waters.

The pile of waste will stand up to 34 feet high within view from where Idaho's oldest building stands in the Old Mission State Park, sacred to both the Coeur d'Alene Indians and the Jesuits.

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Controversy over power versus jobs on Navajo land

The classic struggle between environmentalists and industrialists is playing out in microcosm on the largest Indian reservation in the country. The Arizona Republic lays out the conflict in a fascinating three-part series that looks at the controversies surrounding coal mining and power plant development on Navajo land.

The EPA wants the tribe to install scrubbers to cut down on pollutants at the massive Navajo Generating Station. Some tribe members, including Joe Shirley Jr., president of the Navajo Nation, say the costs would shut down the plants, and thrust more residents into poverty during a time when tribal unemployment is already over 50 percent.

Shirley says he doesn’t believe coal power is damaging. Nor does he believe in climate change. That stance has put him at odds with members of his own tribe who say Navajo people can’t abdicate environmental stewardship of their land.

“The thing that I find shocking is that, as Navajos, we are taught that there are different monsters in creation that try to destroy us,” says Tony Skrelunas, a Navajo who works for the Grand Canyon Trust and spoke to the Arizona Republic. “I think one of those that is really rising up is climate change.

The controversy has spilled to neighboring Hopi land, where some of the coal is mined. It has divided families, and disrupted the power structure of tribal governments.

How it plays out, however, will affect a much wider citizen base – the residents in the four corner states and beyond who rely on the water stored and conveyed using electricity generated by the tribal plants.

Seattle pledges more pollution control to help Puget Sound

The city of Seattle and King County will step up efforts to prevent raw sewage from flowing into Puget Sound and its tributaries, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today.

But the steps are small compared to those called for by environmentalists who want to see Puget Sound and the Duwamish River cleaned up. The current schedule gives Seattle until 2020 and King County until 2030 to almost completely end pollution from so-called "combined sewer overflows." (PDF)

These sometimes-smelly oopsies result from a piping system that mixes untreated sewage with rainwater runoff. Most of the time it's a good system because the rainwater -- aka stormwater, the largest remaining water pollution source in the country -- goes to a wastewater treatment plant.

But when a lot of rain hits overloaded systems like the one King County and Seattle operate, the whole mess comes shooting out into waterways. Sometimes the stuff backs up into streets or even basements.

Major pollution discharges into the Duwamish River are scheduled to continue for decades, despite today's order and despite what's supposed to be a  major EPA effort to clean up the Duwamish.

Such discharges happened 336 times in the Seattle-King County system in 2007, the most recent figures available.

A surprising number of these overflows happen during relatively dry periods after little or no rain.

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EPA to consider setting drinking water standard for perchlorate

Perchlorate , a chemical used in rocket fuel and other explosives, can cause potential health concerns for pregnant women, infants and children, but there is no maximum drinking water standard and no requirement to test for it. That's a problem in New Mexico, where perchlorate has been found in groundwater at Los Alamos National Laboratories, Sandia National Laboratories and White Sands Missile Range, writes Staci Matlock of The New Mexican. The chemical, which also occurs naturally, has been found near drinking wells as well. But the EPA doesn't regulate the chemical in drinking water. Now the agency is reconsidering whether to set a standard that would in turn require drinking water facilities to test for the chemical.

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Crowdsourcing a rescue for Puget Sound

In a sign of the new way government and citizens are interacting, the EPA is using its Twitter account to push for Twitizens to submit suggestions on protecting and/or restoring the Puget Sound.

Tell us what you think are the highest priorities to help protect Puget Sound: http://bit.ly/Hf4nW

EPA Web and social media guru Jeff Levy was more blunt on his personal Twitter:

"Anybody care about Puget Sound? Help EPA protect it! http://bit.ly/Hf4nW"

Can Twitter save the Sound? Time will tell. But given the failure of politicians over the decades to come up with solutions, some crowdsourcing is definitely in order.