Meeting Minutes from InspireSeattle Social on February 25, 2012

Clean-up of the Duwamish River

Our Guest Speaker: James Rasmussen has worked for 30 years to restore the Duwamish River to its former state. He is the current coordinator and a founding member of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition (DRCC), a Duwamish tribal council member, a founding member of the Green Duwamish Watershed Alliance, and a founding member of the WRIA #9 habitat plan.  (We also learned that he is a lifelong trumpet player and the current manager of the group Jazz Police.)

If in 30-40 years fishermen can again catch and eat the fish from the Duwamish River, James Rasmussen will consider this a success. He sees this as a realistic goal in a talk that conveyed his knowledge, warmth, inclusiveness and perhaps most of all, his optimism.

The Duwamish River is Seattle's only river, winding between West Seattle and I-5 before emptying into Elliott Bay. James shared with us his comprehensive knowledge of the river, the Duwamish people, and the current clean-up efforts to save the river.  

James started the evening with a history of the Duwamish tribe. The Duwamish people settled as far east as Lake Sammamish, as far south as Burien, as far west as Vashon Island, and as far north as Shoreline with their largest settlement near the Black River in Renton.  Over 150 longhouses made up a community within the Duwamish Basin as recently as the 19th century. (All were burned in the early 1900's.) Now the Duwamish make up a 'landless tribe', an "urban tribe". One can learn more about Duwamish at the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center on West Marginal Way SW in West Seattle. It is home to social, educational, and recreational classes for tribal and non- tribal people.

Key issues concerning the clean-up of the Lower Duwamish include: 

  • Why is the river polluted?
  • What contaminates the river? (A list including over 45 different carcinogens)
  • Who is responsible?
  • How long will this task take?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed the Lower Duwamish River--a five-mile stretch through South Seattle--as a federal Superfund site in 2001. The Superfund list is a roster of the most contaminated sites in the country. Federal funding for the clean-up of Superfund sites ended under the Clinton administration, however the Superfund remains an important legal designation that brings the EPA's expertise and legal authority to enforce the clean-up.  Four entities are paying the cost of clean-up in the Duwamish Basin:  the City of Seattle, King County, the Port of Seattle, and Boeing.  Other industries will be identified as potentially responsible parties. 

The Duwamish sediments contain a toxic stew of industrial carcinogens such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), oil and other hydrocarbons, mercury, lead, arsenic and other heavy metals, dioxin, pesticides, and raw sewage.  PCBs are now found in nearly all salmon in the River.

Many of these pollutants pose serious health risks by building up in the tissues of fish and shellfish, and passing through the food chain to eagles, seals, orcas, and people. People who regularly eat fish and crab from the River are at the greatest risk. However, toxins are sufficiently concentrated in some of the Duwamish river-bottom mud that people should also avoid daily contact.

There are two aspects to the clean-up:

1)      Remove/Contain the Existing Contaminants --  Boeing owns the site known as Slip 4 and it has now been completely dredged. This process involved new technologies including one that seals the mud being dredged to prevent resuspension of toxic mud into the flowing water.  A second site owned by Boeing, known as Plant 2, produced bombers during World War II.  Unfortunately the toxic byproducts of this effort were freely dropped below the plant during wartime.  Boeing has already committed to completely dredging out sediment 30 feet deep. 

2)      Control Sources of Pollution Flowing into the Duwamish  -- This is the approach advocated by DRCC advocates. If "nothing dirty comes into the river, then the river will take care of itself."  Currently storm drains on Beacon Hill, Capitol Hill and South Seattle flow directly into the Duwamish River. Clean-up of all upstream sources will require additional cost from the responsible parties including:  green infrastructure, natural drainage, the monitoring of storm drains and of overburdened combined sewage overflows.

The Duwamish River neighborhoods (e.g., Georgetown and South Park) include many low income, immigrant, and minority families. The clean-up of the Duwamish is not only an issue of environmental justice but also one of economic justice.  The DRCC collaborates with other community groups to

  • Produce new, living-wage jobs through the impending clean-up work
  • Raise the standards for cleaner housing standards
  • Serve as stewards for wildlife habitat restoration
  • Enhance healthy recreation sites
  • Create thriving communities/neighborhoods

What can you do?: 

  • Visit the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition website to download a map of the Duwamish watershed, to sign up for action alerts, or to attend their events.
  • Contact members of the city and county government as well as the Port of Seattle to urge their continued support for the clean-up of the Duwamish.  

Previous meeting minutes


Previous IAN Events


Thank you to
Bill Bradford (left) for hosting this event
James Rasmussen (center), our speaker
Barbara Sardarov (right), for organizing this event and emceeing


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