I toured Seattle’s Duwamish River and its Toxic Legacy

Seattle has been home to many an industry since the turn of the 20th century.

Boeing, Ford Motor Co. and several lumber and manufacturing companies found their homes along the banks of the lower Duwamish River, which spills into the Elliot Bay and eventually the Pacific Ocean.

A century later, this five-mile stretch of the lower Duwamish waterway remains a hub of industrial activity.

It’s also the focus of multiple federal and state restoration programs, including a $342 million environmental cleanup program under the Superfund program, and the federal Urban Waters Partnership Program. It was listed as a Superfund site in 2001.

I saw this river busy at work this summer with barges hauling goods up and down the waterway. I was on a boat tour with EPA officials and some officials from across the U.S. that was arranged in August by the Association of Clean Water Administrators.   

Seattle tower

The EPA is taking the lead in cleaning up the sediment, which has been contaminated by decades of waste that include PCBs, phthalates, mercury and 40 other toxic chemicals.

The Washington Department of Ecology is charged with ensuring that no new and ongoing sources of pollution enter the waterway.

Sailing past rows of colorful freight containers and dirty grey metal tankers, and concrete outfalls for combined stormwater and wastewater overflows, it’s hard to imagine that any life, aquatic or otherwise, would find anything worth feeding.

seattle cargo

Yet seagulls swoop in and float around nonchalantly, waiting for snacks by the outfalls.

Shellfish and most fish species, other than salmon, found in these waters are unfit for human consumption.

The short-term, cleanup strategy seeks to control sources of sediment contamination. The long-term goal is to prevent recontamination, even the inadvertent kind from goose droppings.