Seattle’s dirty river is gearing up for a major overhaul. The Environmental Protection Agency is about to release its final decision on the Duwamish River Superfund cleanup. The river has been polluted by industry for decades. The question now is how much cleanup will be required, and at what cost?
You might say Ken Workman is an old school Duwamish River celebrity.
His people have lived along the banks of this waterway and others in the region for thousands of years. He’s the great great great great grandson of Chief Seattle.
But today Workman’s welcoming a new celebrity to his river. Rap star and Seattle hometown favorite, Macklemore pulls up on the banks of the Duwamish in his signature black Cadillac. Workman greets him in Lushootseed, the language of his tribe.
Ken Workman: "My name is Workman of the Duwamish tribe, and these are my words. Welcome."
Macklemore: "Thank you"
Ken Workman: "In English, welcome to the hood."
Macklemore has joined environmental justice advocates and local community members in pushing for a more expansive cleanup plan for the Duwamish superfund site.
The Environmental Protection Agency released a draft cleanup plan in 2013 that went on to receive 2,000 public comments. The majority of the commenters said that EPA needs to require more from Boeing, King County, the Port of Seattle and other potentially responsible parties.
Before shoving off for a kayak ride on the river, Macklemore explained why he’s lending his fame to this fight.
Macklemore: "Basically the industry has come in here and made this water crazy levels of toxicity and it’s pushed away, it’s not in the forefront, not talked about much and I wanted to get involved in any way that I could."
Right now shellfish and some bottom feeding fish in this river have dangerously high levels of metals and other contaminants. But people do fish here, and they eat what they catch.
The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition says the river needs to be clean enough that the resident fish are safe to eat. That means dredging more toxic sediment out of the river than the EPA initially called for in its draft plan.
The industrial landowners on this river say there’s no guarantee that it will ever be safe to regularly eat the fish that live here.
Brian Anderson, with the Boeing Company, steers a motorboat up the Duwamish. He points out a stretch of restored riverbank, dotted with new plants. This is one of 6 early action sites that industry is already cleaning up on the Duwamish, under the supervision of the EPA.
A giant yellow backhoe scoops up dripping sediment from the river bottom nearby.
Brian Anderson: "We’re dredging the footprint beneath, replacing it with clean backfill and on the uplands where the building used to be, is now being restored."
During World War II Boeing churned out B17 bombers here. Now it’s in the middle of removing more than 150,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment.
Stephanie Jones Stebbins is with the Port of Seattle, one of the other parties on the hook for the clean up. She says the early work is paying off.
Stephanie Jones-Stebbins: "There were a number of parts in the river that were the most contaminated. these have been cleaned up in advance of the overall cleanup of the river because we knew they were the most contaminated sites and we knew they would need to be cleaned up."
Last year the EPA put out a draft plan that set the clean up cost at 305 million dollars.
The final plan is expected to be more expensive for the Port, Boeing and other parties responsible for the cleanup.
But Jones-Stebbins says cleanup technology isn’t advanced enough to get the river 100% clean, no matter how much money is spent.
Stephanie Jones-Stebbins: “If we thought a more expensive cleanup actually got us more, that would be a harder decision. A cleanup that’s more expensive does not get the river cleaner.”
For Ken Workman, the chairman of the Duwamish tribe, the definition of success isn’t measured by dollars spent or cubic yards dredged from his river.
Ken Workman: “Coming across the street and pulling fish off of this river and throwing them on the fire over at the longhouse, that’s taking us back to our ancestors, and so that’s saying we haven’t forgotten you.”
Workman says that vision may not become a reality in his lifetime, but perhaps for the generation to come.
The Environmental Protection Agency will be releasing its final decision on the Duwamish Cleanup in the coming weeks.
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