River of no return

Seattle’s Duwamish has been straightened, dredged and heavily polluted. Can a Superfund cleanup bring it back to life?

  • Yasmeen Salvador, right, and Diamondeique Willard play on the shores of the polluted Duwamish River in their Seattle neighborhood of South Park.

    Jordan Stead
  • A tugboat trundles up the Duwamish River past a working factory and a sign that warns against eating fish from the waterway.

    Jordan Stead
  • South Park residents Patty Engrissei and Sam Town watch the waters of the Duwamish River flow by while out walking their dogs. “We’ve lived in South Park for 10 years, and we know fishing out of the river is a no-no.” Engrissei says. “If you can’t swim in it, we don’t eat out of it.”

    Jordan Stead
  • An oily residue coats the quicksand-like shores of the Duwamish River near Boeing Field.

    Jordan Stead
  • The industrial East Fork of the Duwamish River, where cranes and boats frame Seattle’s skyline.

    Jordan Stead
  • Justin Euthy, 10, and his father pack up their fishing gear after failing to catch anything from the waters of the Duwamish River under the Spokane Street Bridge.

    Jordan Stead
  • Daily life in South Park, where poverty and pollution reduce lifespans by an average of 13 years compared to upscale Seattle neighborhoods.

    Jordan Stead
  • Fishing line drapes a trash-covered piling.

    Jordan Stead
  • Daily life in South Park, where poverty and pollution reduce lifespans by an average of 13 years compared to upscale Seattle neighborhoods.

    Jordan Stead

On the kind of sunny August day that rain-soaked Seattle lives for, Michael Jeffers pulls his white Ford Ranger into a dirt lot surrounding a cinderblock cube of a building in the city's Mount Baker neighborhood. The anonymous garage is nominally a car wash, with a hose and some sponges but no electricity. Standing water drips from oil drums clustered in the back alongside car batteries under ragged tarps. "This could be interesting," Jeffers says wryly as he climbs from his truck. "There have been problems with drugs here in the past."

Jeffers isn't the kind of cop who looks for drugs, though. The lean, gray-haired 53-year-old, who wears a smile like it's part of his uniform, is a stormwater inspector trying to help Seattle get a handle on the stuff that gets swept into storm drains by the region's famously heavy and frequent rain. All those little spills add up to big pollution problems in the Duwamish River, four miles away.

Today, he's already spoken to Russian mechanics and a "bad-credit-no-credit-no-problem" car dealer. Here, he finds a Vietnamese man, who explains in broken English that he does oil changes and takes used sludge to an auto-parts store for disposal. Satisfied, Jeffers gives the man an urban hydrology pamphlet, which he only glances at briefly. Just as Jeffers completes a circuit of the property, the owner, a tall man named David, arrives on a green Huffy bicycle decorated with a dreamcatcher. "There was an inspector here just last week!" he exclaims before Jeffers can say hello. "We ain't using no chemicals!"

Jeffers explains calmly that if hydrocarbons and other chemicals washed from vehicles run directly into the storm drain, they end up in the river, and David could be fined. Same with those oil drums and batteries. In reality, fines are rare, Jeffers later tells me, because the city would rather help businesses comply: "It's just a matter of pushing them in the right direction." Jeffers recommends that David build a dirt berm to direct runoff into a sewer, feeding it into a wastewater plant for treatment. David begins to relax: "It's just right now, we're barely getting business," he confides. "Times are tough."

The men shake hands, and Jeffers returns to his pickup. "The message we try to get across is, ‘We're spending all this money cleaning up the (river),' " he says. " ‘We don't want to pollute it again.' "

Seattle is proud of its green reputation. The city recycles more trash than it puts in the landfill and is within sight of two national parks. Yet the Duwamish, a once-vibrant river that historically hosted at least 17 fishing villages belonging to the eponymous Duwamish Tribe, along with the city's first white immigrants, is one of Washington state's most polluted rivers.

The Duwamish helped Seattle become the Pacific Northwest's economic powerhouse, its fertile soils and harbor access the first seeds from which the city's prosperity grew. But that prosperity has nearly killed the river. For more than a century, heavy industry has pumped it full of carcinogens and metals. Subdivisions and low-rises sprawl over its former meanders; its immediate watershed is now a 32-square-mile expanse of paved urbanization, its tributary streams replaced with storm drains that swallow whatever garbage and chemicals the rain washes from industry lots, businesses like David's, and sidewalks and roadways. It's hidden so well among the scrapyards and shipping terminals that many residents don't even know it exists. On maps, it's marked simply as a "waterway" – nothing more than a transit corridor where barges glide from factories to the Pacific Ocean.

These days, the Duwamish's fish are too toxic for human consumption. Yellow warning signs line its shores; even playing on its few beaches carries a health risk. Yet fishing continues. The industrial buildup that poisoned the river also made the land around it cheap to live on, attracting immigrants from fishing cultures who either don't understand the pollution or ignore it. Some are simply so poor they're willing to risk cancer for a square meal.

In 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added the last five miles of the Duwamish River to its list of Superfund sites and began planning to clean up the sediment that lines the river's bottom like a poisonous quilt. Limited dredging has already started, but the main 10-year, $305 million push will begin after the EPA releases its final cleanup order later this year.

The EPA hopes to improve conditions for wildlife, scrub the river's few beaches, and ultimately make its fish, crabs and clams safe enough to eat again. And the agency's plans – to remove enough toxic mud to fill 29 Olympic-size pools and seal a swath of river bottom 18 football fields long under sand and rock – will indeed keep much of the contamination out of the food chain. But in the end, the Duwamish may stand not as a shining example of how to right environmental wrongs, but of how difficult, even impossible, it is to do so when their root causes have as much to do with how we've engineered our everyday lives as with industrial fallout. And the cleanup area's discrete boundaries exclude a major ongoing source of pollution, one that will prove extraordinarily difficult to control: The thriving, bustling city itself.

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