By Robin Lindley
Working for Justice and Health for the People of a Blighted Waterway:
Seattle’s Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition
Humankind has not woven the web of life.
We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
Chief Si’ahl (Chief Seattle)
The Duwamish River, the only river flowing within the city limits of Seattle, Washington, became the industrial core of the city over the past century. While the city prospered. the river and its neighbors suffered the consequences.
The story of the river is a case study in environmental injustice. The marginalized, low income, and ethnically diverse community around the lower Duwamish faces environmental risks and hazards that are much greater than other neighborhoods in Seattle.
In 2001, the federal Environmental Protection Agency found that the lower Duwamish River was one of the most hazardous toxic waste locations in the United States and declared a 5.5-mile-long area of the lower river a Superfund Cleanup Site.
In response, environmental activist and river scientist BJ Cummings—and now Community Engagement Manager for the University of Washington’s Superfund Research Program—founded the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition (DRCC), the advisory body for the Superfund Cleanup of the river. Under its mandate, the DRCC addresses environmental justice issues with the affected community together with local organizations and agencies. The Coalition represents an alliance of community, Tribal, environmental, and small business groups affected by ongoing pollution and cleanup of the river.
The DRCC works in the shadow of the fraught history of today’s brackish river. James Rasmussen, DRCC Superfund Manager and a Duwamish Tribal leader, reminds fellow citizens that “the wealth of Seattle was created on the backs of the Duwamish River and the Duwamish people.” As industries thrived and the Seattle region prospered, the residents who lived near the river sacrificed their health and wellbeing.
Over the 20th century, the lower Duwamish neighborhood became the most polluted and unhealthy in Seattle as the waterway served as a convenient dump for riverside industries and waste from the Port of Seattle and the city, as detailed in BJ Cumming’s recent groundbreaking history of the Duwamish, The River that Made Seattle. In creating an industrial base, business and political leaders ignored the health concerns of local residents.
For millennia, Native Duwamish people lived on and revered the river as the cultural and spiritual heart of their lives but, by the late 1800s, most Native people were driven out of the area by an onslaught of white settlers. And Gilded Age Seattle leaders saw the river only in terms of economic opportunity.
By 1920, massive engineering projects had deepened and straightened the once meandering lower Duwamish to allow for ocean-going vessels from the salt water of Puget Sound. Industries sprouted on the banks of the lower river, with warehouses, trucking companies, a Boeing aircraft plant, hazardous waste dumps, recycling firms, wrecking yards, asphalt and cement plants, and more. As businesses and local governments released toxins into the river, heavy vehicle traffic and factory emissions polluted the neighborhood air.
Industrial pollutants along with disgorged sewage and street runoff poisoned the city’s sole river through the last century. Preceding the Superfund designation, studies of the river revealed high levels of more than 40 chemicals that endanger human health including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (cPAHs), arsenic, mercury, phthalates, and dioxins.
Making an Impact
To address the environmental hazards and risks in the area, the DRCC now works to fulfill its mission: “DRCC elevates the voice of those impacted by the Duwamish River pollution and other environmental injustices for a clean, healthy, equitable environment for people and wildlife. We promote place-keeping and prioritize community capacity and resilience.”
The DRCC serves the lower Duwamish community—including Seattle’s Georgetown and South Park neighborhoods—which is one of the most ethnically diverse areas in Seattle with at least 70 percent people of color (Hispanic, Black, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Indigenous) and 42 percent foreign born. More than 30 languages are spoken in local schools. And about 72 percent of residents are below 200 percent of the federal poverty line while South Park is the lowest income Seattle neighborhood.
The DRCC’s Cumulative Health Impact Assessment (CHIA) showed that residents in the area are much more likely than fellow Seattleites to suffer from asthma, cardiovascular disease, infant mortality, and low birth weight babies, among other medical issues. The study also revealed the highest level of air pollution for any Seattle neighborhood from traffic and businesses in the 98108 zip code for the Georgetown, South Park and part of Beacon Hill. That zip code also has the highest number of contaminated waste sites and poorest built environment characteristics in the city.
And another disturbing CHIA finding: residents of Georgetown and South Park have a life expectancy that is eight years shorter than the Seattle average, and 13 years shorter than the predominantly white, wealthy Laurelhurst neighborhood in north Seattle.
Further, the Washington Health Disparities Map, a project spearheaded by Dr. Esther Min, UW Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, revealed in 2019 that the Georgetown-South Park area is one of the most health deprived in Washington State, scoring a devastating 10 out of 10 for health disparities and environmental hazards, far exceeding most other Seattle neighborhoods.
Executive director of the DRCC, Paulina Lopez, a South Park resident, understands this marginalized community and the pressing need to correct disparities in health and environmental exposures. With a background in human rights and environmental justice, she skillfully builds inclusive partnerships and empowers members of the lower Duwamish community to use their voices to improve the standard of living for the people living there. Those who work with Ms. Lopez praise her generous, encouraging spirit and her gifts as a communicator, negotiator, and natural teacher.
In addition to its role in technical research projects and monitoring of the river cleanup, the DRCC works on many fronts to achieve environmental justice. For example, it works to:
–Promote health and safety to protect the most vulnerable in the Duwamish Valley while addressing longtime inequities. Public education efforts include creation of multilingual materials, social media and live events, community meetings and events, collaboration in distributing information from public health and environmental experts, among others.
–Build community resilience through community ownership and decision making and create systems of community resilience with government and philanthropic organizations to foster a regenerative economy where people of color (Black, Brown and Indigenous) can thrive
–Prioritize local voices in addressing water and air pollution and the related environmental and health disparities.
–Achieve climate justice by leading with collective community power and holding decisionmakers accountable by eliminating social inequity made worse by flooding, sea level rise, extreme heat and other environmental hazards to reduce the hazardous effect of a changing climate on those who contribute least to the problem.
–Train volunteers and educate young people. A vital Duwamish Valley Youth Corps has helped with everything from removing waste in their community to assisting with scientific studies. For example, in its Moss Study—a part of DRCC Clean Air Program— youth researchers collected dozens of moss samples from neighborhood trees that scientists tested for heavy metals, a measure of air pollution. Youth Corps members have also been involved in projects to address plastics pollution, traffic congestion and speeding, and food distribution, and they provided 250 air filters to improve indoor air quality in residences. And DRCC volunteers have planted hundreds of trees providing “green screens” in its neighborhoods.
–Create more affordable housing and address displacement in collaboration with other community groups and local government as part of its place-keeping goal. DRCC supports the Duwamish Valley Affordable Housing Coalition and recently conducted outreach to qualified buyers for Habitat for Humanity Homes. DRCC also seeks developers from the community to build more affordable residences as it works to preserve existing housing and resist displacement and violent disruption of current residents.
–Create and share educational programs and materials in multiple languages that address air pollution as part of DRCC’s Climate Justice program. As part of this effort, food security and traffic congestion as well as housing issues are a priority. In addition, a Clean Air Stakeholders Group will identify root causes of asthma and the disproportionately high rates of asthma in the Duwamish Valley. From this work, the group will develop an action plan to address the asthma epidemic with performance measures and measures for holding responsible parties accountable.
–Resist rollback of environmental regulations with community partners, a priority particularly during the previous presidential administration.
–Control sources of pollution. For example, DRCC collaborated with Just Health Action to educate the community on controlling the sources of pollution and preventing pollutants from entering the river. A source control team includes representatives of Latino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Somali communities.
–Organize with EPA educational materials on environmental law and regulations, the river cleanup, and other information.
–Monitor cleanup. By 2020, sampling data revealed the average PCB levels in river sediment have declined.
–Disseminate health information on safe fishing and consuming of fish from the river. Public health studies revealed that only salmon from the river were safe to eat and other fish and shellfish were unsafe to consume. Multilingual materials on the health concernes were developed and shared in collaboration with people of the Latino, Vietnamese and Cambodian communities—traditional fishing societies.
–Provide information and resources on COVID-19 while promoting testing and vaccination, and preventing virus spread.
This list of DRCC projects and goals is not exhaustive but offers glimpses of the organization’s manifold efforts to address environmental injustice in a marginalized community. The COVID 19 pandemic disrupted projects, plans and many presentations in 2020. Other challenges remain as health and economic disparities persist but the DRCC is determined to shift power to its marginalized community to create a place that benefits all citizens.
The Duwamish Valley community has benefitted immensely from DRCC’s identification of numerous hazards and disparities, public education programs, community partnerships, continued monitoring of the river and environmental quality, habitat restoration, measures to protect health, its multilayered strategy to remove obstacles to justice and health, and much more.
As the cleanup and restoration of the Duwamish River continues, Ms. Lopez and her staff and volunteers work to realize the DRCC vision: “An empowered Duwamish Valley community thriving in a healthy and just environment.”
Robin Lindley is a Seattle writer and attorney and serves as features editor for the History News Network (hnn.us).