The Duwamish River’s Deadly Catches

The Duwamish River provides immigrants in South Seattle with food, money, and cultural identity. It’s also making them sick. Can the EPA’s $305 million cleanup fix one without destroying the other?

As he waits for crabs to take his bait, the Cambodian man explains his approach to eating seafood out of the Duwamish River.

“If it comes up black...I throw it back,” he says. “But if it looks normal, that means it just swam up from the Sound. It’s OK to eat.”

He then pulls out his phone and proudly shows off a photo of a huge, pink, seemingly clean Dungeness crab he hauled in the week before.

T-105 Park—named after the industrial shipping terminal the Port of Seattle carved it out of—is abuzz this Sunday afternoon with crabbers, almost all of them appearing to be members of a tight-knit Cambodian community. One by one eight or so crab pots baited with raw chicken and salmon heads are heaved into the still water from a fishing pier. On the horizon, jets brought in for the Seafair airshow make loop-de-loops over Lake Washington. Just across the river, a man in a tiny sailboat yanks on lines as his friends enjoy what looks like a very precarious ride around the waterway.

Crabbing is a waiting game. You throw your pot in, wait 10 minutes, then pull it up to see if anything has gotten snagged. Here, crabbers pass the time playing cards, drinking Coors, and noshing on a generous potluck in the picnic shelter. They number maybe 20, but make the tiny park feel crowded.

When time comes, the crabbers draw in the rope attached to their pots, pulling them through grooves worn into the wooden railing from years of crabbing.

Almost without fail, the pots are full of crab. In one instance, an eel is hauled in with the catch and subsequently used to torment squeamish young women in miniskirts who have come out for the festivities. Few of the crabs are keepers, not because they are black with pollution but because they are too small. These crabbers are no slouches: They know the Washington Department of Fish and Game regulations and make sure they follow them. When one man pulls up a red Dungeness that appears to be big enough to keep (6.25 inches), a friend pulls out a plastic measuring stick. It is big enough, and it is kept.

If it’s a typical Duwamish crab, the shellfish’s muscle will contain a level of the carcinogen PCB just above the state’s threshold for consumption, meaning these crabs should never be eaten. The hepatopancreas, commonly known as “crab butter” and considered a delicacy in many Southeast Asian cultures, contains PCB levels 20 times that. It may be taken home and boiled in beer, an ineffective but widely used method of sanitizing seafood. Of greatest concern to health officials, it could be served to children in the man’s family or a pregnant woman—two populations particularly vulnerable to the menace posed by fish that live in Seattle’s only river.

There are many reasons the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is poised to order a $305 million cleanup of the last five-mile stretch of the Duwamish River that B-lines it through Seattle, past T-105 park, and into Puget Sound. But the main one, as stated by the EPA, is to make these fish and shellfish fit to consume. Right now, with the exception of salmon—which actually do migrate into the river from the Sound—they are not.

More than 100 years of industrial pollution has rendered the Duwamish River a Superfund Site, among the nation’s most contaminated areas. PCBs, mercury, arsenic, lead, and nearly 40 other pollutants exist at troublesome levels in the water, the sediment, and the seafood.

Final plans for the cleanup, scheduled to begin in 2015, will be released later this year or early next, and will represent the most concerted and expensive effort yet to launder Seattle’s soiled doormat. Responsibility for cleaning the river and keeping it clean will fall on a labyrinthine tangle of state, federal, and local agencies working with private industries as big as the Boeing Corporation and as small as a corner auto-detailing shop in Mount Baker that doesn’t have electricity.

But no matter where you enter the maze, if you follow it far enough it leads back to the crab pots at T-105 park and other fishing spots that line the river: That’s where the environmental sins of Seattle’s past and present are pulled in from the Duwamish in hard-shell and scaly packages, cooked and consumed. And while it may seem like a simple problem compared to the daunting task of literally scrubbing contaminants from pieces of sand, keeping people from eating the fish in the Duwamish has proven surprisingly difficult. Experts point to a combination of poverty, culture, and the fact that few people understand how the carcinogenic chemicals in the water work. And there’s ample doubt that even $305 million will be enough to solve the problem for good.

In 1850, Col. Isaac Ebey, a ’49er who came to Olympia after his hopes for California gold were quickly dashed, hired Indian guides to take him around the Sound. Traveling from Elliott Bay, Ebey and his scouts ventured up what he called the Dewams River—then the site of at least 17 fishing villages—until they reached a massive inland lake. Ebey found it so stunning, he tried to name it after Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Geneva didn’t stick; the lake eventually took the surname of our first president.

About the Dewams, he wrote: “The river meanders along through rich bottom land, not heavily timbered, with here and there a beautiful plain of unrivaled fertility.” But while it was that fertile farmland that originally attracted white settlers, the river itself would ultimately define the area’s—and in many ways the entire region’s—economic worth.

In 1913, work began to straighten and deepen the water. Beautiful as Col. Ebey’s meandering river sounds, it was bad for business, and what was 13 miles of river eventually became five after 20 million cubic yards of mud and sand were moved to fill in its bends.

This straightening was possible in part because of a systematic effort that kept the clean water running off the Cascades from reaching the river. Even if his canoe could avoid all the shipping barges that now ply the Duwamish, Col. Ebey would not be able to find his wonderful Lake Geneva today, at least not by boat. The Black River, which fed out of the lake and connected it to the Duwamish, no longer exists.

With the digging of the Montlake Cut, finished in 1916, and the Ship Canal past Fremont, the level of Lake Washington dropped, and it began feeding water into Lake Union instead of the Duwamish. To supply the Ballard Locks with enough water to operate, the Cedar River was re-channeled away from the Duwamish and into Lake Washington, where its waters would reach the Locks via the Cut. With a third major tributary, the White River, diverted toward Tacoma, by the 1920s the Green River remained the sole source of water for the Duwamish, making the two rivers essentially one.

In the words of Richard Hugo, obituary writer of many great Northwest rivers, the squelched Duwamish became “Midwest in the heat,” its curves “slow and sick.”

Businessmen attracted to the Puget Sound access that this newly pliable water provided came in droves, setting up mills, shipyards, and the Boeing manufacturing plant that famously rolled out 16 B-17s in 24 hours during WWII. And while some mills have shut down and the B-17 is out of production, industry along the Duwamish is still massive. According to King County, the business corridor along the river employs 100,000 people, or 7 percent of all jobs in the county. An economic impact study found that in 2008 the Lower Duwamish industrial area had a total economic impact of $13.5 billion. The physical footprint of that industry also hides the river, literally, from a city that prides itself on its environmental acumen.

As one EPA employee noted to me wistfully: “You don’t see it. It just kind of disappears amongst all that industry.”

And while business hid the river, the river hid the by-products of business and Seattle’s progress. Over the 20th century, Seattle’s storm drains were built to whisk runoff that naturally would have gone into Lake Washington and Lake Union into the Duwamish instead. Factories considered the river a convenient way to dispose of waste, and did so. Then in the 1930s came an innovation out of the Monsanto Corporation in St. Louis: a new class of chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. This elixir of capitalism made paint last longer and caulk seal better, and prevented electrical systems from overheating.

“This was the good stuff,” says David Schuchardt, the Duwamish River program leader with Seattle Public Utilities, which has an extensive program in place to prevent contamination of the river. “For high-end construction, companies would buy the best product on the shelf, and the best product on the shelf contained PCB.”

But there was just one problem: PCBs were likely carcinogenic, and at the very least toxic, though the extent to which they posed a risk to human health wasn’t realized until the 1970s. By 1979, the manufacturing of PCBs was banned in the United States because of the chemicals’ links to cancer, but it was already too late for the Duwamish.

Though 40-some pollutants are in the cross-hairs of current cleanup efforts on the river, PCBs are by far the most pervasive. With every rainfall in Seattle, more PCBs are washed off buildings with old coats of paint and elsewhere and into Seattle’s storm-drain pipes. In the river, the chemicals settle into the river bottoms, where they are consumed by tiny worms and other creatures in the sand. From there the PCBs travel up the food chain until they reach the resident seafood. These fish contain on average 20 times the amount of PCBs than the fish from Puget Sound, itself by no means a pristine fishery. When the state Department of Health issued its “Do Not Eat” recommendation in 2004 for the Lower Duwamish, the body of an English sole pulled from the river had a PCB level of 3,120 parts per billion; a tenth of that would have prompted the state to place a do-not-eat order on the fish.

Peter Quenguyen is in his element. Wearing a tweed driving cap, he charges from group to group at a barbecue being held in a dusty patch of land in South Park, shaking hands and cracking self-deprecating jokes about his diminutiveness. In his pocket is a roll of what looks like play money: Duwamish Dollars, vouchers that are as good as cash in participating businesses near the river, backed by the full faith and credit of the EPA.

The purpose of the gathering, and those Duwamish Dollars, is to engage the community. As we eat Vietnamese barbecue and fresh watermelon, the river dominates the conversation. Offering me a glass of water, one woman laughs, “Don’t worry, this isn’t Duwamish water!”

As part of the Superfund process, the EPA uses gatherings like this and liaisons like Quenguyen to keep an open conversation going with the people most directly affected by Seattle’s industrial pollution, namely residents of South Park and Georgetown.

South Park is much more diverse and poorer than the rest of the city. According to the most recent census, the neighborhood is 55.4 percent minority, compared to 30.5 for the whole of Seattle, while its per-capita income is $18,575, less than half the Seattle average.

Residents are also far less healthy—a fact that environmental advocates have pointed to as proof that Seattle’s industrial wealth comes at a direct cost to the city’s poorest residents. According to a health-impact study of Seattle area codes released earlier this year, life expectancy in South Park and Georgetown is eight years shorter than the Seattle and King County average, and 13 years shorter than that of residents of Laurelhurst (median income $81,866).

These poor health outcomes can’t be traced solely, or even largely, to fish consumption. Still, EPA analysis shows that regular consumption of Lower Duwamish resident fish increases one’s chances for cancer; studies elsewhere have linked PCB consumption by pregnant women to lower birth weight and other developmental complications, as well as disruption of hormone and immune systems.

When I’m able to pull Quenguyen away for a quick interview, he tells me that it’s in the nature of many Vietnamese to want to spend days on the river. “A lot of people from Vietnam, they escaped from the river side. Most of them are from a fishing family. They like being by a river,” Quenguyen says.

When they arrive in Seattle, many Vietnamese immigrants settle near the river because of the already strong community there (South Park is 7 percent Vietnamese), as well as the relatively cheap cost of living. But even in an established community, they don’t have good information about the risks of Seattle’s river. Quenguyen rattles off the challenges to keeping people from eating fish from the river: “All of the language barriers, they need it for their family—they don’t care about the pollution.”

So Quenguyen, among many others, is tasked with clearing up the confusion. He says he’s highly successful. “After I tell them, they don’t eat the fish any more,” he says. “They love me!”

3 perch caught in the Duwamish

How many people are eating fish from the Duwamish is unknown, despite a number of attempts to gauge it. Survey after survey has been frustrated by too-small sample sizes; sources who clam up when asked about consumption in any official capacity whether they eat fish from the river; or sheer ignorance of where the fish is coming from. Researchers in 2011 noted that in some Seattle immigrant populations, fresh seafood is often purchased from ad hoc fish stands where the source of seafood is unknown. The same survey of 1,005 immigrants in King County found that only two people knew the Duwamish River by name.

What is known is that immigrants like the Vietnamese at the barbecue or the Cambodians crabbing at T-105 are particularly vulnerable, given the language barriers and poverty noted by Quenguyen. And then there is the cultural issue of differing environmental standards.

“Especially where some of us come from, it looks like a pristine river,” says Alberto Rodriguez, a native of Honduras and program manager for the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition. “Where I come from, we have a hometown river as well, but it has so much raw sewage in it, it stinks. . . . You can tell it’s dirty because it stinks.”

Added Renee Dagseth, the EPA’s community involvement coordinator: “The residents there have a lot more immediate challenges. The air quality is sending their kids to the hospital.”

Yellow signs posted at fishing sites on the river warning people not to consume the resident fish are now featured in eight languages, but officials acknowledge that signs are a notoriously bad way to protect the health of fishers, particularly if the fishers use their catches for subsistence or profit.

An EPA report released in February concurred, noting that getting people to understand the risks involved with eating fish from the Duwamish is only half the battle, if that. Subsistence fishers may have no other viable food source. Going elsewhere to fish may cost too much in gas or require different fishing equipment and skills. And if fishing is important in their community, telling people not to eat fish out of the Duwamish “may be akin to recommending abandonment of their cultural heritage and identity,” according to the report.

So what can government agencies do? If you force people to stop eating the fish, they may starve. If you let them eat it, they could get cancer.

Ideas have been floated. The City of Seattle says it will begin publishing bus information showing which routes lead to good fishing holes. Among the possibilities suggested by the EPA: stocking food banks with fish so people don’t feel compelled to go to the Duwamish; setting up a fish-trading system in which people could swap their crabs or sole for clean fish; providing transportation to fishing areas where the fish are clean; or simply paying residents to stop fishing the Duwamish.

But of course the ultimate solution is clear, if seemingly impossible: clean the river so the fish aren’t toxic at all.

By design, Superfund cleanups are acrimonious. The federal government seeks to avoid eating as much of the cleanup cost as possible, and instead attempts to identify who it thinks are major polluters are and force them to foot the bill for however much the federal agency determines is necessary. In the case of the Duwamish, the four biggest polluters ID’ed in 2001 were the City of Seattle, King County, the Port of Seattle, and Boeing. In addition, last year the EPA also issued 325 notices to businesses informing them that they were considered to be on the hook for some fraction of the cost. This includes businesses whose only link to the current pollution is the fact that the land they bought was once a source of PCB or other pollutants.

Since the 2001 Superfund designation, the four major parties—know collectively as the Lower Duwamish Waterway Group—have spent $110 million in “early-action cleanups” that have targeted the river’s most polluted parts. Those cleanups have cut the PCB level in the sediment by 50 percent.

But that was a prologue to the major cleanup to come. How much that will cost is an uneasy question. The answer depends largely on how pristine the EPA decides the Duwamish should be by project’s end—a measure that comes down in part to how clean the fish are.

When the EPA released its draft cleanup plan for public review last winter, thousands of comments poured in, critiquing various aspects of the document that ran into the hundreds of pages. The battle lines between the agencies and industries that would have to pay for the cleanup and environmental groups pressing for a more expensive and expansive plan of action were many: The LDWG argued for less dredging; environmental groups wanted more. The LDWG liked the scope of the cleanup; environmental groups thought more miles of river should be included. The LDWG balked at the EPA’s statement that one goal of the cleanup was to render resident fish clean enough to eat without restriction, noting that the EPA’s own modeling showed that it could never actually achieve that goal; environmental groups said never say never.

The argument for less dredging goes like this: Not only does dredging cost a lot of money, it takes a lot of time. The EPA’s plan includes seven years of dredging, compared to five years under a plan put forward by the city, county, port, and Boeing. The problem with the longer work plan, in this line of thinking, is that dredging by nature kicks up contamination currently in the mud, causing a possible 10-fold spike in the amount of PCBs in the water that is easily picked up by the fish, according to Jeff Stern, King County’s sediment program manager. The longer the dredging period, the longer the heightened exposure.

Considering that many of the health hazards faced by Duwamish Valley residents aren’t even addressed by the river cleanup, the plan as it stands would mean a net loss in environmental health during the dredging process, according to King County officials. “It’s more years and more people who have the potential for being exposed because of that longer dredging period,” says Christie True, director of the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks, King County’s lead agency on the cleanup.

LDWG members also like to note that no matter how clean they get the Lower Duwamish, it will always rebound to the levels found in the Green River, which feeds directly into it. Federal guidelines state that riverbed contamination should be kept lower than two parts per billion in order to prevent dangerous contamination in fish. The cleanest the EPA thinks it can get the Duwamish is 20 times that—40 parts per billion, which is the level of pollution coming in from upstream. It must be noted, however, that the LWDG also argued against including upriver cleanup and so-called “source control” measures as part of the Superfund plan, moves that environmentalists claim would be the most effective way to bring down the entire river system’s pollution levels.

Still, LDWG members say it’s absurd to suggest that the sediment will ever be clean enough to render all fish completely safe to eat. According to True, modeling suggests that at cleanup’s end, it will be safe to eat Duwamish crab on a limited basis. Everything else will have to be monitored to see how the fish respond.

And while the cost would be negligible compared to that of the rest of the cleanup, Boeing went as far as to challenge the EPA on its proposal to provide clean seafood to people who are now fishing along the river, saying that went beyond the scope of the agency’s authority.

All told, the LDWG’s plan is cheaper than the EPA’s by about $45 million.

Asked about the county’s argument that more dredging would hurt fishers and other residents along the river, James Rasmussen, Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition coordinator, says he’s suspicious. “All of a sudden, being concerned about the community—it seems disingenuous, quite honestly. For the last 30 years, they didn’t really care,” says Rasmussen, who earlier this year was quoted by The Stranger as saying the city and county needed to get their heads “out of their asses.”

The DRCC—a nonprofit that grew from a group of stakeholders gathered by the EPA to take community comment—also wants a quicker cleanup than what’s planned, but one that’s a lot more expensive, costing around half a billion dollars. The extra cost arises from a more aggressive dredging program—which the DRCC says will best ensure that pollution is removed from the river—and from its broader scope, including cleaning up the up-river pollution that everyone agrees will set the floor for how clean the Duwamish can get.

As for the price tag, the DRCC contends that while their recommended plan will cost more in the short term, it will save money in the long term, since under the current plan, the results will fall short of federal cleanup standards and require everyone to go through the entire process again.

Of the projected 10-fold increase in contaminants during dredging, Rasmussen tells Seattle Weekly that the county’s claim doesn’t hold water, saying that their prediction is based on old dredging technology that is no longer used, and that newer technology is much cleaner. When Boeing oversaw the cleanup of one early hot spot—Boeing Plant 2—chemical levels never exceeded state standards, he says, according to monitoring by the EPA. “It was incredibly impressive, actually. Don’t compare old dredge data to new dredge technology—and no question about this, the new tech will be used on the river.”

Contamination will still increase during dredging, says Rasmussen, but a period of heightened pollution in the river is better than just leaving contamination there for good. “If it means talking to the community about not fishing for 10 or 15 years while the cleanup is going on, that’s a much easier sell than saying ‘We have to keep you from fishing forever, and we need to do a better job informing you about the pollution,’ which amounts to just shouting louder.”

The EPA acknowledges that as the plan stands now, the Duwamish won’t meet federal water-quality standards at the conclusion of the cleanup. But, it argues, those standards would be impossible to meet in an urban waterway like the Duwamish no matter what kind of cleanup was conducted.

While the agency is still weighing all comments before releasing a final plan, the EPA’s Duwamish Cleanup Project Manager, Allison Hiltner, says the agency determined that spending more than $305 million wouldn’t get the river any cleaner. “If we dredged the rest of the river, would it make it cleaner? Our initial assessment is it would not,” Hiltner says.

“The bottom line is, we’re going to take a lot of stuff out of the water,” she says, noting that seven years after the cleanup, there will be 90 percent fewer PCBs in the water than there are now; about a year after the cleanup is complete, fish tissue levels are expected to drop by the same amount.

With the EPA considering it inevitable that water quality will not reach the point where fishing can occur on the Duwamish without restriction in the foreseeable future, it is preparing to launch a year-long study to finally get a grasp on how widespread fishing is and how best to tackle it. The LDWG, DRCC, and state agencies are also participating in the study, which will begin next year.

There’s little disagreement that the study is necessary, given that even under the best scenario, Duwamish fish won’t be fit to consume until the 2020s. But as the EPA itself noted in a document released earlier this year, even if it’s unavoidable, a fundamental injustice occurs when Superfund cleanups leave fish too contaminated to eat and thus require steps to keep people from consuming them in the long term: It puts “the burden of addressing environmental contamination’s health effects on those affected,” the EPA notes, “rather than those responsible for the risk.”

But who is truly responsible for that risk? The EPA will eventually come up with a full list of responsible parties, businesses large and small that will have to pay into the cleanup fund—right now Monsanto is on the list; so is something called the Scougal Rubber Corporation—as well as public agencies whose part we’ll all pay via taxes and utility rates.

But these entities aren’t what killed the Duwamish. Seattle killed the Duwamish. Beyond its economy, Seattle’s very geography in many ways was built on the back of its river. Most of the water that once coursed from the Pacific Crest to the braided lowlands of the Duwamish now instead flows to Lake Washington. It’s perhaps coincidental, but still interesting, that water that once belonged to the Duwamish and ran past South Park now flows in front of the most expensive houses of lakefront Laurelhurst, where residents can expect to enjoy, on average, 13 more years of life.

As Matthew Klingle noted in his environmental history of Seattle, Emerald City, it’s easy to slip into the belief that Seattle is a pristine city on the Sound. “This garden city seems benign . . . from the lofty heights of Queen Anne,” he wrote, “but to the residents of the Duwamish Valley, it hardly seems benign.”

Rasmussen himself admits it’s unclear whether, even under the best-case scenario, the Duwamish can get clean enough to allow people to freely eat the fish and crab they pull out of its gray water. But after 100-plus years of disregard for the waterway that welcomed Seattle’s first white settlers, he says we have to try.

“The Duwamish River has been a sacrifice zone for a long time,” he says. “It’s been where all the contamination of this city has gone, a place where we’ve said, ‘Oh well, this is just the way it is.’ At least try to do the work before you say you can’t do it.

“If the wisest, richest, most educated city on the Puget Sound doesn’t show the leadership and clean its river, nobody is going to do any more than we are doing. What’s proposed right now is not going to do anything. It??s like saying ‘This is just the way it is. We can’t do it.’ ”

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