The high health costs of a Seattle’s Superfund site: it can take years off your life

Read the related story on how people continue to eat contaminated fish from the Duwamish despite warnings.Read the related story on how environmental justice is becoming an emerging issue in King County and the nation. Living along the Duwamish River can erode years from your life.The more than 38,000 people tucked into South Park, Georgetown and Beacon Hill neighborhoods along the river’s Superfund site suffer more illness – including asthma, diabetes and colorectal cancer – than elsewhere in King County. Babies born to families along the river are more likely to die and those who survive can expect a shorter life span than people born and raised just a few miles away.Their obstacles are many. They are often poor. They are frequently overweight. Access to a supermarket, or to health care, can be tough.But people here also carry the added burden of the river, a toxic stretch that is the legacy of Seattle’s industrial past. And Seattle’s industrial future continues to foul the air that residents breathe.

UNSAFE TO CONSUME: Despite warnings, people fish the Duwamish

People aren’t supposed to eat the fish they catch in the Duwamish. But here’s the dirty river’s dirty secret: They do.“People fish on the river,” said B.J. Cummings of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, a nonprofit coalition of environmentalists, neighborhood groups, local businesses and Duwamish tribes. “These are people with little or no income and people for whom fishing is a really important cultural practice.”The river is a source of food for tribal, immigrant and low-income anglers, despite post warnings telling them not to eat the fish.A recent survey conducted by Public Health — Seattle & King County confirmed that anglers are eating what they catch. Some because they don’t understand the warnings, or falsely believe that cooking will remove contamination.Others because they said they don’t believe the warnings, or don’t care.Morgan Barry, an outreach educator for Public Health – Seattle & King County, who helped organize the survey, recalls an encounter with an older man who was fishing the river. He told her he used to live downwind of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, she recalled, and that he used to work with asbestos in the shipyards.“He told me, ‘Everybody gets cancer,’ ” she said. In his world, that was just the way it was.There are some 42 chemicals above federal standards in the river bed, including PCBs, dioxins, carcinogenic hydrocarbons, and arsenic. They are all chemicals known to cause cancer or other health effects, including reproductive harm, and immune system or neurological disorders.

Environmental justice gets its due along the Duwamish

By Carol SmithInvestigateWestEnvironmental justice is an old mandate getting a new life under Lisa Jackson, the first African-American head of the Environmental Protection Agency.Environmental justice refers to the fair treatment of all communities when it comes to enforcing environmental laws and protecting them from health and environmental hazards. It was first made a federal priority with a 1994 Executive Order intended to right inequities in minority and low-income communities that were experiencing a disproportionate share of the nation’s environmental hazards. The order, signed by President Clinton, tasked all federal agencies with incorporating environmental justice into their decision-making processes.But the mission languished for the next several decades.A 2007 study by Sandra George O’Neil published in Environmental Health Perspectives, for example, concluded that inequities had not only persisted, but also escalated in the intervening years with fewer polluted sites located in minority and low-income communities being designated for Superfund cleanup funds, compared with those in wealthier areas.That study along with criticism of the Superfund program by the Government Accounting Office and the U.S. Office of the Inspector General galvanized a call to reform the approach to environmental justice among federal agencies.Under the Obama Administration, the EPA along with other federal agencies has a strict new edict to take justice into account. Jackson has assumed a high-profile role in evangelizing for environmental justice. She is mid-stream in a well-publicized “Environmental Justice Tour” that is taking her around the country visiting communities beleaguered by toxic waste.And that in turn has invigorated communities with a new enthusiasm that raising their voices will make a difference.