With focus on toxics, Duwamish cleanup could leave other health problems unsolved

A view of downtown Seattle over the Duwamish Waterway
Paul Joseph Brown/InvestigateWest

If the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency isn’t going to ensure Seattle’s Duwamish River is clean enough for needy residents to fish there for their dinner, the agency needs to ensure those people get fish some other way – even if that means supplying seafood through food banks. Or building clean urban fishing ponds. Or giving people shares in a seafood cooperative akin to a community-supported-agriculture operation.

That’s one thrust of a new report by health advocates commenting on the EPA’s proposed cleanup plan for the heavily polluted Duwamish, the first such “health impact assessment” on any Superfund site. The study also warns against potential gentrification of the riverside South Park and Georgetown neighborhoods; authors say a cleanup could hasten the already obvious demographic shift in the South Seattle neighborhoods, with wealthier and whiter residents edging out lower-income people unable to weather rising housing costs.

In all, the study touches on a broad array of the cleanup plan’s potential impacts, including effects on tribal identity, the labor market and family downtime.

These seemingly disparate observations and recommendations are embodied in a report released this week that challenges EPA’s traditional definition of health in past Superfund cleanups, one that focuses strongly on cancer-causing pollutants. This new study advocates adding social, cultural and even spiritual aspects of health into the mix.

The report zeros in on the four most affected populations – local residents, Indian tribes, non-tribal fishermen and local workers – to examine the potential unintended consequences of the agency’s plan on the very people it’s designed to help.

Residents are “worried that after they’ve worked so hard to clean up the river, they won’t be able to stay and enjoy the benefits,” study co-author Bill Daniell told the Seattle City Council during a presentation Monday.

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How Boeing, allies torpedoed state’s rules on toxic fish

Gov. Chris Gregoire signs a 737 used to test new technologies at Boeing's
Renton, Wash., facility during "Aerospace Day," June 20, 2012.  Later that day she met with
a Boeing executive who had complained about the state's proposed rules.
Credit: Gov. Chris Gregoire/Flickr

Entering her final year in office, former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire found herself in a difficult spot: Indian tribes, powerful supporters of the governor, wanted stricter water pollution rules. Why? Because the current regulations mean tribal members, along with sport fishermen and some other Washington residents, regularly consume dangerous amounts of toxic chemicals in fish from local waterways.

But Gregoire’s supporters in the aerospace industry—spearheaded by The Boeing Co.—were dead set against tightening the rules. The Washington State Department of Ecology pushed mightily to strengthen the pollution limits before Gregoire left office, successfully outmaneuvering Republican legislators, only to see the plans dashed one day after a high-level meeting between the former governor and former Boeing Executive Vice President Jim Albaugh, according to newly released government records.

“It was my expectation that this was not going to be a top-tier political issue,” Ted Sturdevant, the former Ecology director who tried unsuccessfully to shepherd through the changes, told InvestigateWest.

He was wrong.

Timeline: Fish Consumption Rate

For more than 10 months, bureaucrats and business, politicians and tribes influenced the Department of Ecology's ultimate decision to slam the brakes on fish consumption. Full emails and reports can be seen here.

Read the Reporting Behind this Timeline

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Fish Consumption Records from the Governor's Office

The documents in this collection include communications to and from the Washington State governor's office obtained by InvestigateWest through a public records request.

 
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'Prescription for Abuse' Honored at Best of the West

Last February, Carol Smith's report, “The Prescription Epidemic” revealed how aggressive marketing and sales of pharmaceuticals drove a culture of overprescription in Washington and created the spectacular run-up in the number of deaths from prescription overdoses.

Today that story—and the documentary of the same name that we co-produced with KCTS—was recognized by Best of the West, a journalism contest for news outlets from Alaska to Texas. Here's what the judge had to say:

InvestigateWest’s Carol Smith and Stephanie Schendel and KCTS’ Ethan Morris take second for their collaboration in print and video of the prescription-drug epidemic in Washington. The investigation comes after the state’s enactment of a law that limits the doses doctors and others prescribers can give out. It is considered one of the strongest prescription drug laws in the United States.

“InvestigateWest’s report on the prescription drug epidemic in Washington tackles a controversial topic – the unintended consequences of making pain medication available to those in need. Carol Smith and her colleagues revealed not just the personal cost of overdoses but also the hidden influence of drug companies on the guidelines for the use of painkillers. The research, the writing and the multimedia presentation offer readers creative, compelling and unforgettable work,” the judge wrote.

Congratulations also to the staff of The Oregonian, who won top honors in the category for their reporting on the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System.

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Business Interests Trump Health Concerns in Fish Consumption Fight

The current estimate of how much fish people eat in Washington State, a key criteria for setting
water quality standards, is less than one-tenth the figure used by Oregon.
Credit: Jason Alcorn

The Washington State Department of Ecology has known since the 1990s that its water-pollution limits have meant some Washingtonians regularly consume dangerous amounts of toxic chemicals in fish from local waterways.

At least twice, Ecology has been told by its overseers at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to fix the problem and better protect people’s health. Ecology was close to finally doing that last year — until Boeing and other business interests launched an intense lobbying campaign aimed not just at Ecology but also at the Washington Legislature and then-Gov. Christine Gregoire. That is the picture that emerges from recent interviews as well as government documents obtained by InvestigateWest under the Washington Public Records Law.

The problem lies in Ecology’s estimate of how much fish people eat. The lower the amount, the more water pollution Ecology can legally allow. So by assuming that people eat the equivalent of just one fish meal per month, Ecology is able to set less stringent pollution limits.

Meanwhile, citing the health benefits of fish, the state Department of Health advises people to eat fish twice a week, eight times as often as the official estimate of actual consumption. The state knows that some members of Indian tribes, immigrants and other fishermen consume locally caught seafood even more often than that and are therefore at greater risk of cancer, neurological damage and other maladies.

The Boeing Co. looms large in this story. In June 2012, Boeing said if Ecology went ahead with plans to make fish safer to eat, it would “cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars and severely hamper its ability to increase production in Renton and make future expansion elsewhere in the state cost prohibitive,” according to a Gregoire aide’s reconstruction of a conversation with a Boeing executive that month.

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No Comparison: Fish Consumption Rates in Washington and Oregon

 

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<a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/94495135@N03/8602846448/" title="Fish Consumption Rates by JasonIW, on Flickr"><img src="http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8106/8602846448_b9b5f8b680_z.jpg" width="543" height="640" alt="Fish Consumption Rates"></a>

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The Emails and Reports behind Washington's Fish Consumption Debate

The documents in this collection are a mix of publicly available reports and Washington State Department of Ecology records obtained by InvestigateWest through a Public Records Law request.

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