superfund

Carol Smith's picture

Learning from the Duwamish River Communities

Seattle is a city built on water – its identity, its celebrated beauty, and much of its economic lifeblood comes from its relationship to Puget Sound and the rivers that flow into it.

But the Duwamish River, which runs through the center of Seattle’s urban industrial core, is not the one you see on post cards. Now named one of the largest Superfund sites in the country, it is also the river in the backyard of more than 38,000 of Seattle’s poorest and most diverse residents.

The goal of my 2010 National Health Fellowship project was to identify the community health issues that face the people living in two neighborhoods – Georgetown and South Park -- which face each other across the toxic river in the middle of the Superfund site. 

The thinking was that by identifying these problems, we could call out the issue of accountability, and more importantly point the way toward creative solutions for a portion of the population the greater Seattle community has historically ignored. The backdrop for the story was a looming multi-million dollar Superfund decision about how best to clean up the river, and to what extent.

The precipitating event for the story, though, was the closure of the bridge that links the two communities, effectively cutting off easy access to downtown Seattle a few miles away. To me it seemed the perfect metaphor for the attitude of the larger population toward those struggling to carve a life on the banks of the river that built the prosperous city down the road.

Byline: 

Duwamish River: Have a say in cleaning up Seattle's biggest toxic waste dump

Byline: 

Picture 12,000 dump-truck loads of dirt – enough to fill eight Olympic-sized swimming pools. This dirt contains some pollution -- but no one is really sure how much.

Swept downstream each year into Seattle’s biggest toxic-waste site, the Duwamish River – this mountain of dirt looms large as the public gets a chance this week to weigh in on how to clean up the part of the river set to be rehabilitated under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program.

 

 

Photo by Paul Joseph Brown

To see more photos of the Duwamish,go to www.ecosystemphoto.com

Seattle, King County, The Boeing Co. and the Port of Seattle – all major polluters of the Duwamish over the years – have laid out 11 plans that aim to clean up decades of accumulated toxic goop in the river. To scoop out some of the mess and bury at least some of the rest beneath clean sand, gravel and rock, the pricetags range from spending $230 million over 24 years to expending $1.3 billion over 43 years. 

The most controversial issues are related: Does the river need to be so clean that people can eat seafood from it regularly? And if so, does that mean polluted rainwater runoff flowing off a massive area of south King County – and bringing with it at least some of those 12,000 truckloads of dirt – must be cleaned up at an even higher price?

Can "Eco-Industrial Districts" help make Seattle sustainable?

A potentially far-reaching step toward making Seattle and its economy truly sustainable went unrecognized by news media this week: King County declaring its intention to partner with the city to create "Eco-Industrial Districts." A likely first candidate: The Duwamish River corridor in south Seattle, home of a Superfund site but also some grand visions by environmentalists, community activists and others.

The King County Council, prodded by councilman Larry Phillips, passed a resolution Sept. 13 that was welcomed by Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin:

"Seattle’s industrial core is a unique and extremely valuable resource and critical to the long term economic health of the region. The City Council’s interest in (eco-industrial districts) has a dual purpose, both to strengthen our industrial core and to improve the environmental quality of the Duwamish river corridor."

It's been a few years since the city council passed an ordinance intended to help preserve easily gentrified industrial areas. It's a threat we explored in our 2007 series on the Duwamish. But the city hasn't done a whole lot since then to proactively encourage high-wage industry to stay in town.

The whole idea of these eco-industrial districts is that new and cleaner industry can dovetail with efforts to green up -- literally and figuratively -- some of the city's grittier and yet economically important areas. Here's how the county's press release conceputalizes them:

Cleaning up Coeur d'Alene

Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman highlights the history behind a $1.79 billion bankruptcy settlement between the American Smelting and Refining Co. (ASARCO), owner of the Bunker Hill Mine in Kellogg, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Lead from the mines helped fuel World War II's barrage of bullets and Idaho's economic trajectory, but the mine owners knowingly emitted large amounts of lead into the environment, though they could have fixed the emissions control.

Instead, they pursued record profits while poisoning the air with a substance known to make children fidgety, dumb and brain damaged.  The Kellogg mine was on the Coeur d'Alene river, which drains into Lake Coeur d'Alene, which along with the upper reaches of the Spokane River is now one of the nation's largest Superfund sites.

Now, the mine's waste tailings, full of heavy metals like cadmium, spread into Washington, and the state and the E.P.A.'s work is not done.  $435 million of the settlement is set aside specifically for Bunker Hill.  The clean up of the mines is revving Idaho's economic engine now, attracting another $15-20 million in stimulus funds from the Obama Administration.

Read University of Idaho Associate Professor Katherine Aiken's excellent history of the Bunker Hill mine, whose owners were embroiled in Watergate, giving illegal contributions to the EPA to influence its decisions, rather than spending the money on cleaning up the toxic legacy they had left to Idaho and Washington's children.

Feds dump mine waste in Idaho flood plain

The Northwest News Network produced this fantastic story for KUOW News about how the federal stimulus package has sped up the disposal of arsenic- and lead-contaminated mine spoils on a flood plain off I-90 in Northern Idaho.

The East Mission Flats Repository is a Superfund site designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to receive the remains of Idaho's toxic mining history despite being in a floodplain inundated just last year.  Community groups are concerned that the area will flood again, spreading more toxic metals into state waters.

The pile of waste will stand up to 34 feet high within view from where Idaho's oldest building stands in the Old Mission State Park, sacred to both the Coeur d'Alene Indians and the Jesuits.

Helicopter, scientists study radioactive waste spread by wildlife at Hanford

For the next 10 days, a helicopter will be hovering over the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in hopes of discovering how animals have spread radioactive salts around the area, reports Annette Cary of the Tri-City Herald.

In a chopper equipped with aerial radiological survey gear, CH2m Hill Plateau Remediation Co. -- the company contracted by the Department of Energy to conduct the surveys -- will fly just above the site at 80 miles per hour looking for contaminated "hot spots." The idea is that aerial surveys will help narrow the estimated ground contaminated and reduce cleanup costs. The 13.7-square-mile portion of Hanford being surveyed is just south of the trenches that were filled with millions of gallons of liquid radioactive waste during the Cold War.

Understanding how animals contribute to the movement of radioactive contamination has gained attention in recent years. Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that scientists were convening this week in Kennewick, Wash., very near Hanford to discuss just that.

The crew will also survey nearby West Lake, an ephemeral wetland once filled with contaminated ground water that seeped up through aquifers, leaving behind traces of radioactive salts.

Feds looking to dump thousands of tons of mercury

More than half the sites being considered for long-term storage of thousands of tons of toxic mercury are in the West. A story by Annette Carey in Washington’s Tri City Herald naturally focused on the site closest to her readers: Hanford Nuclear Reservation, already a candidate for the worst-polluted piece of ground in the nation. (Did you realize that Hanford’s annual cleanup budget is larger than that of the entire Superfund program?) Carey’s story says up to 11,000 tons of the toxic metal need to be stored for up to 40 years because of the Mercury Export Ban of 2008. It turns out mercury is a commodity, traded worldwide, and Congress wants to reduce its availability. (Which will, of course, enrich further whoever is still selling it on the open market, but that’s another story.)  The other six sites under consideration by the Department of Energy are the Grand Junction Disposal Site in Colorado; the Idaho National Laboratory; Hawthorne Army Depot in Nevada; Kansas City Plant in Missouri; the Savannah River Site in South Carolina and Waste Control Specialists in Andrews, Texas.