A view of downtown Seattle over the Duwamish Waterway
Paul Joseph Brown/InvestigateWest
Before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency submits its proposed cleanup plan for the Duwamish River Superfund site later this year, community health researchers are conducting a “health impact assessment” to figure out ways the cleanup could affect surrounding communities.
During the upcoming spring and summer months, researchers from University of Washington, Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition and Just Health Action will determine how people along the river are likely to be most affected by EPA’s cleanup. An environmental cleanup of the magnitude to be conducted on the Duwamish will undoubtedly make the river cleaner and healthier for humans and wildlife, but researchers want to learn more about the potential impact on communities, both positive and negative.
“We want to minimize the adverse effects and optimize the benefits for these communities,” said BJ Cummings, community health projects manager of the Cleanup Coalition.
While studies of this kind have been done on large developments in Europe and parts of Asia, they are relatively new in the United States, researchers said.
Researchers will deliver their findings to EPA before the finalization of its cleanup plans for the Superfund site. Public health consultant Linn Gould of Just Health Action said she sees the Superfund cleanup as one “small piece of the puzzle” necessary to reduce health disparities in the Duwamish Valley. Gould and others hope the health impact assessment will be an effective tool for maximizing positive results from the cleanup.
Studies will focus on three main communities possibly affected by the cleanup, and who rely on the river for food and culture, or call the area home: subsistence fishermen, three local tribes, and residents of the South Park and Georgetown neighborhoods.
For example, researchers will study the possibility of gentrification along the Duwamish, an area that is predominantly low-income. One possible outcome of cleaning up the river is a rise in property values, which in turn could price lower income members of the community out of their own neighborhoods.
The research team has also decided to study possible consequences for subsistence fishermen. It is possible that cleanup operations could force fishermen who use the river as a source of nutrition to cease their shellfishing and angling. The Washington Department of Health advises against consuming fish harvested from the river, except for migratory salmon, because of the levels of toxic chemicals found in resident species. This is an issue that regulatory and community groups have grappled with for years. Many fishermen on the lower Duwamish already struggle with access to fresh healthy food and rely on the river’s fish being in their diet.
Bill Daniell, an epidemiologist and associate professor from the University of Washington School of Public Health, will lead the research team. Daniell said the study will take a broad look at the health of the communities and not simply examine traditional notions of sickness and health.
“People’s health is determined not just by whether they are exposed to a germ or chemical,” Daniell said. “[It] is not just the absence of disease, but quality of health and well-being” overall.
Collaboration with two committees will be essential for the project’s success. The liaison committee includes regulators from EPA and the state Department of Ecology, as well as businesses and governments that helped pollute the Duwamish, such as Boeing and Port of Seattle, and other agencies. The community advisory committee consists of community organization representatives and members from the three affected communities: subsistence fishermen, three local tribes and residents of South Park and Georgetown. The tribes involved are the Duwamish, the Muckleshoot and the Suquamish.
“They play very important roles,” Daniell said of the committees. “It’s really enriched by interacting with people who will be affected by potential impacts.”
Daniell stressed that “potential impacts” can be both positive and negative.
The main objective in a health impact assessment is to identify ways to enhance the desired goals of a cleanup, Daniell said.
One of many challenges facing researchers will be finding and interviewing fishermen. The subsistence fishing community is composed of mostly immigrant populations. This is where the community advisory committee could be essential. Researchers will rely on the committee to help contact groups that might be harder to reach, such as subsistence fishermen, as well as provide advice on other impacts the community could experience.
Health consultant Gould said researchers hope the collaboration between the two committees and the research team will lead to more effective suggestions for the Superfund cleanup.
“We don’t just receive the grant and do it ourselves. What’s cool and exciting is that it’s collaborative,” she said.
It’s this collaborative process that will provide researchers with the most comprehensive health data for their study, researchers said, and make sure they provide an effective and useful report to EPA for its Duwamish cleanup.
In addition to collecting their own data from surveys, risk assessments and committees, researchers will rely on existing health data to inform their study. The researchers said it is important to have information on the current health of a population in order to look at potential impacts.
The health assessment is still in the early planning stages, but is scheduled to happen throughout the spring and summer. Right now, researchers are in the “scoping” phase of planning. They are designing processes for determining how much fish is being caught, and by whom; deciding what community practices or traditions could be affected by a Superfund cleanup; and exactly what type of data they will be pursuing.
Cummings, of the Cleanup Coalition, said the research team has experienced lots of early support from government agencies and positive responses from the communities researchers will be working with. She said a priority for the study is identifying those most vulnerable to the toxic environment on the waterway and the cleanup actions.
Researchers will conduct the assessment with money from The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Two other studies also focus on the Duwamish. The Duwamish Valley Healthy Communities Project conducted by the Cleanup Coalition is studying health issues in the Duwamish Valley.
The Cleanup Coalition and Just Health Action are also working on a Cumulative Health Impacts Analysis, which is focused on “combined and disproportionate risks from exposure to multiple stressors.”
EPA refused to comment for this article.