After a decade of studies that cost millions of dollars, the time had come for the people living around Seattle’s biggest toxic mess to tell the government what a cleanup should look like.

On a spring night in 2013, Spanish-speaking residents of south Seattle approached a microphone that sat beneath the basketball hoop at the South Park Community Center. One by one, they envisioned a new future for the Duwamish River and the neighborhoods it passes through. Today those neighborhoods of South Park and Georgetown are home to some of King County’s highest rates of hospitalization for childhood asthma. Locals regularly fish the river, despite government prohibitions due to high levels of toxic chemicals in seafood caught there.

Clean up as much as you can, the people said, overwhelmingly.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the Duwamish River as a federal Superfund site, was listening.

Then a man made his way to the microphone and introduced himself, in Spanish, as “John Ryan, one of the engineers who worked on the cleanup study.”

As a baby cried in the audience, Ryan told the South Park assembly why he opposed a more expansive cleanup.

Ryan said that removing large amounts of the river’s pollution would actually be worse than digging out less. All the trucks required to cart the tainted muck dredged from the river bottom, he said, would rumble through their neighborhoods, spewing air pollution. It would double the air pollution and truck traffic, in fact, compared to a more modest plan already endorsed by the EPA.

Not only that, Ryan said, but digging out larger amounts of the toxic river-bottom mud would also cost twice much as the EPA’s plan. He said that would be “a bad use of the public budget.”

Ryan isn’t the only one opposed to the idea of carting away most of the polluted river bottom. All the big players involved in the cleanup, aside from the grassroots Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, agree that more removal would be less helpful. Industry opposition should be expected. But also lining up on the dig-less side are three local governments often lauded as green: King County, Seattle, and the Port of Seattle. All say that dredging up and carting away more toxic crud wouldn’t do any better to protect health. The Cleanup Coalition disagrees, strongly.

One thing Ryan did not say explicitly was that he was working for the local governments and The Boeing Co., all of whom as polluters and owners of polluted land are on the hook for an as-yet-undetermined share of the cleanup costs, which are expected to run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Lobbying campaign targets feds

John Ryan’s words to those citizens that night were just a small part of a years-long lobbying campaign by Seattle, King County, the Port of Seattle, and Boeing to limit the amount of dredging done in the Duwamish. The campaign stretched from South Park to the U.S. Capitol, according to records obtained by InvestigateWest under the Washington Public Records Act.

The Lower Duwamish Waterway Group, as the foursome of Boeing and the local governments is called, says it already has spent more than $40 million for studies and $150 million on early cleanups of “hot spots” on the mega-polluted river. The Duwamish is loaded with carcinogenic PCBs and lots of other pollutants—some dumped directly by industry and some arriving via rainwater runoff from the 32-square-mile portion of the Duwamish Valley between Beacon Hill and West Seattle. Those cleanups have hauled away about half of the river bottom’s most-polluted material. Now Boeing and the three local governments want to limit how much more expensive dredging the EPA will require.

The EPA is expected to announce its final decision by year’s end. And if Boeing and the governments prevail—as expected—residents of South Seattle will likely be warned against eating much seafood from the Duwamish due to an increased risk of cancer and other diseases. Probably forever.

As is usual at a Superfund site, the debate turns on money. Reasonable people can disagree about how to split the cost between the businesses that helped pollute the Duwamish, such as Boeing, and the rest of us, through our tax bills. But how big the final bill will be rests on the answers to three key questions:

First, is it technically feasible for the cleanup to achieve pollution levels that would make it safe to eat Duwamish seafood? The basic objection to dredging coming from Boeing and the local governments is their contention that more dredging would not appreciably reduce health risks to people or the fish and shellfish in the river. The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition contends that removing the contaminated river bottom is safest because all that poisonous mud will be gone for good, holding out hope that the health of the river’s bounty could someday improve to the point that fishing restrictions could be lifted.

Second, how much Duwamish seafood do people actually eat, and is it possible to keep them from doing so? The river was declared off-limits to most fishing more than a decade ago, but authorities still are unable to keep people from fishing the Duwamish.

And third, what about the dirt, sand, and mud that constantly flow into the Superfund site from upriver? Those too are contaminated, carrying anything and everything rainwater runoff sweeps up in its path: motor oil, dog crap, pesticides, spilled industrial chemicals, and more. If that could be cleaned up as well, it’s possible that people could again fish the Duwamish without worry, the Cleanup Coalition says. Impossible, answer the local governments and Boeing.

The EPA’s preliminary plan would clean up the Duwamish through a combination of dredging, which is really expensive; covering less-polluted areas with perhaps six inches of sand and rocks; and allowing other even less-polluted sections to “recover naturally,” their containments being buried by sediment swept downstream by the current, at little or no cost.

The dredge-more scenario—the one Ryan was arguing against—would cost substantially more, perhaps $600 million over 17 years. The dredging-light plan pushed by Boeing and the local governments, in contrast, would cost about half as much and take just five years.

In a preliminary decision announced last year, the EPA endorsed a compromise: a seven-year, $305 million plan that, significantly, relies on restricting people from fishing the Duwamish.

“Big fish”

To make sure their message was heard, Boeing and the local governments aimed high: Washington, D.C. They went to Congress and requested that pressure be put on the EPA to talk with them outside the official Superfund comment process, which is open to the public. Late last year, about six months after that community meeting in South Park, Boeing and the local governments went into high gear, records show.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray “expressed surprise” and “consternation” when King County Executive Dow Constantine told her EPA headquarters was blowing him off and that the head of EPA’s Seattle-based Region 10, Dennis McLerran, wouldn’t talk with them either, according to a Feb. 6 email to county officials by Jeff Bjornstad of the government-affairs firm Washington2Washington.

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The campaign eventually landed the group meetings with the EPA’s second-in-command, Bob Perciasepe—“a real score” according to one King County official’s e-mail—and with McLerran.

The lobbying built through February of this year, when King County’s then-head lobbyist, Genesee Adkins, wrote to partners: “[I]t sounds like Boeing is pushing partners to make another much more pointed push to the delegation asking them to call EPA.”

The same day, a King County executive, Christie True, head of the Department of Natural Resources and Parks, wrote to colleagues that it was time to get the “big fish” in their organizations to lobby Washington’s congressional delegation to lean on the EPA.

Boeing and the governments looked for leverage. They considered hiring two former heads of EPA’s Region 10, Chuck Clarke and John Iani, records show. Then, as records show, Boeing and the governments decided to aim highest of all by recruiting one of the most powerful political heavyweights in modern Northwest history: former U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, the longtime ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.

But two months after the intense lobbying campaign ensued, that idea got scotched. Martin Baker, a policy advisor at Seattle Public Utilities, told DNRP head True that the “City of Seattle will not participate as it is too high risk and inappropriate,” according to an internal county e-mail.

Baker told InvestigateWest that Dicks’ hiring never came to pass because “it was a strategic decision about how to represent our message. We have good relationships with the stakeholders and EPA, and we felt it would work out.”

And it does look like things are about to work out for Boeing and the three local governments.

The EPA is hoping that Boeing and the local governments will be satisfied enough with the cost of the mid-level cleanup plan that they will agree to pay for the work instead of fighting the EPA in court—which so often happens under the Superfund law, whose legal provisions can siphon off lots of money for epic court fights.

More than four-fifths of the 2,327 public comments on the EPA’s plan urged the agency to do more dredging. The agency is not obligated to follow that direction, though, and must only consider the comments seriously.

“We work really hard at sites across the country and in particular at the Duwamish to make sure we are reaching everyone who is interested,” said Lori Cohen, deputy chief of the Superfund unit for EPA Region 10.

For its part, the grassroots Cleanup Coalition reached out to its own friends in high places, too. In June, well-known Seattle pop musician Macklemore was the centerpiece of a campaign in favor of a larger dredging operation. The Cleanup Coalition has at least one other such friend: Mike O’Brien, the former Sierra Club volunteer who now sits on the Seattle City Council.

Echoing Macklemore, O’Brien says, “We have a long history in this country of dumping on low-income communities, both literally and figuratively. There’s no doubt in my mind that some communities get higher levels of cleanup, and I’m very concerned about what will happen in the Duwamish.”

It’s already been established by InvestigateWest and later others that people living in the Duwamish Valley live sicker and die younger, and face many environmental health threats. Many residents also have trouble getting fresh food because of a lack of grocery stores in the neighborhoods surrounding the Superfund site, which makes fishing the dirty Duwamish all the more appealing.

O’Brien says he wonders about the Superfund program’s laserlike focus on removing pollution from the river. If you’re going to start throwing around additional tens of millions of dollars, he asks, maybe it’d be better spent on jobs and education.

“As a policymaker, I would like to be thinking more holistically about how we allocate our scarce resources. The Superfund box is not as holistic as what we need,” said O’Brien, who, according to government records, interceded with city staff on the Cleanup Coalition’s behalf. “This community is facing a bunch of challenges that they did not bring on themselves, and Superfund is just one of them.”

O’Brien said he doesn’t know if the Cleanup Coalition or the city and county staffers are right about how much polluted muck should be dug up. It’s a technical question. Easy for a politician to duck. But this he does allow:

“The city’s powerful. The county’s powerful. The port’s powerful and Boeing’s powerful. The one place where I do take a side is I want to make sure the community has as close to as much power as possible going forward with these discussions.”

Objections raised

Taken together,the records obtained by InvestigateWest paint a picture of Boeing and its government partners and consultants maximizing the downside of a heavy-dredging plan by using distorted figures that they should have known were wrong.

John Ryan’s comments at the South Park meeting raised hackles among those who advocate for a total cleanup of the Duwamish sediment.

“Until now I believed our disagreements to be a more-or-less honest debate on the merits of the cleanup options and how to spend public dollars,” wrote BJ Cummings of the Cleanup Coalition in an e-mail the day after Ryan’s talk. “But I have now heard public agency representatives make public statements that they know to be untrue. This has not happened in the past 12 years of planning for the Duwamish cleanup.”

The Cleanup Coalition has argued that Ryan’s scary numbers were based on the assumption that the trucks used would be burning a kind of fuel that is so dirty it has been illegal for truck use since 2006 and for off-road vehicles since 2010—years before Ryan offered his comment at the South Park Community Center on that spring night.

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Those allegations were backed up by two reports commissioned by King County and its partners following pressure from the Cleanup Coalition. Those reports—one written by Ryan and his colleagues at the consulting firm AECOM, another written by Heffron Transportation, Inc.—examined how different cleanup plans would affect air quality and the number of truck trips generated. Sure enough, the AECOM report said the new and cleaner fuel would be used.

The Cleanup Coalition also argued that Ryan’s figures assumed that 100 percent of the muck would be transported by truck. It’s true that an earlier study—the so-called Feasibility Study comparing the cleanup alternatives, written by AECOM—did make that assumption. But it was widely known that a majority of the muck was likely to be carted away on barges that pollute a lot less than trucks, the Cleanup Coalition argued.

The Heffron report acknowledged that much of the muck could be hauled away by barges, reducing the pollution. But even assuming 100 percent truck transport, the Heffron study said, the Duwamish River cleanup would have only a “negligible” effect on south Seattle air pollution.

So did Ryan lie?

A careful examination of these two reports reveals how Ryan and his colleagues could justify their conclusions. It’s all in the technical detail—which of course didn’t get discussed that night under the basketball hoop.

The study by Ryan and his AECOM colleagues said that during the EPA’s seven-year project, trucks would spew 11 tons of soot, while over the 17-year life of another alternative much like the Cleanup Coalition’s proposal, 21 tons would be released—roughly double.

But how much pollution would be in the air at any given time? The amount of soot released on an annual basis would actually decrease under the more-dredging scenario, from 1.55 to 1.26 metric tons per year, AECOM reported. (The AECOM study actually presents a best-case scenario, assuming all trucks involved would be the cleanest-running diesel trucks around, the newest ones with the most up-to-date equipment. Which they might or might not be.)

The Heffron report similarly concludes that “while the differences in dredge volumes are not expected to significantly affect the number of truck trips generated on a single day, they would affect the number of years over which truck trips would be generated.”

In response to these reports, King County appeared to back away from Ryan’s 2013 claims.

“Ensuring the use of [ultra-low sulfur fuel] will significantly reduce emissions,” King County sediment management specialist Jeff Stern wrote a few weeks after the reports’ release. “The project will increase emission and particulate pollution in the valley, but only slightly.”

Read the full document

Nevertheless, in correspondence with InvestigateWest, the King County Department of Natural Resources has consistently stuck by the original claim. Last Friday, DNRP spokesman Logan Harris wrote: “The actual transport methods for the cleanup won’t be determined until after the project is designed and implemented. What stays the same regardless of transport method is that more dredging means more transport. Mr. Ryan’s statements about proportionate impacts between different cleanup alternatives still hold true.”

DNRP refused InvestigateWest’s request to interview DNRP director True. Calls to John Ryan requesting comment were not returned. We also were unable to speak with King County executive Dow Constantine, although a county spokesman provided an interview.

The two reports helped prompt at least one formal change: King County agreed to adjust a “fact sheet” it had long distributed through the Internet and elsewhere, records show. Where it once toted up the transportation impact using little truck icons, it now shows little bucket icons.

Downriver dilemma

Even if the Cleanup Coalition were to somehow win this battle and see the EPA order the massive $600 million, 17-year cleanup, the Duwamish and its surrounding neighborhoods might well remain at risk.

Before he even got to the trucks, Ryan told the South Park crowd that 100,000 metric tons of sediment—the runoff from streets in Auburn and Renton after every rain, as well as farms and highways and everything else pretty much up to Mount Rainier—gets washed downstream every year into the lower Duwamish.

“Imagine a line of trucks carrying sediment that starts here and ends in Olympia,” he said. That’s how much dirt, sand, and mud the 103-mile-long watershed dumps into the section of the Duwamish designated as a Superfund site, the last five miles before the river empties into Elliott Bay at the West Seattle Bridge.

Environmentalists have long pushed to clean up all that land so that the Duwamish can be fished regularly. Cleaning up 93 miles of river to help the Superfund site long seemed like a bit of a pipe dream. The federal Superfund law doesn’t require it, after all. Just cleaning up sources of toxics across the 32 square miles surrounding those last five miles is a Herculean task for the vastly understaffed state Ecology Department.

And then in September, Constantine rolled out what sounds like an ambitious strategy for projects to help rehabilitate the river across its 500-square-mile watershed. He announced his “Green-Duwamish Watershed Strategy” in conjunction with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, aiming to do what the Cleanup Coalition has been advocating for years: Clean up the pollution flowing downstream.

Words are cheap. And Constantine spokesman Chad Lewis allows that all the county executive is really trying to do is to coordinate what many agencies have been working on for a long time. There is no new source of money accompanying the initiative.

But it’s significant, Lewis argues. It sends a message to the EPA, he said: “We’ll see your five miles and raise you 93.”

“That’s not a swipe at EPA,” Lewis cautions. “That’s what [Constantine’s] whole vision is around the Duwamish: You don’t just clean up this five-mile stretch. We have to go upstream and stop pollution coming down.”

And if that doesn’t work?

“It’s going to get polluted again.”


Jason Alcorn contributed to this report.


Corrections: This story originally stated incorrectly that the EPA’s proposed cleanup plan would cost $400 million instead of the correct figure, $305 million. It also misstated Bob Perciasepe’s title. He was deputy EPA administrator. Norm Dicks’ position in Congress was originally misstated as House Appropriations Committee chairman. He was the ranking member of the committee. The story originally said Boeing and the local governments had spent $40 million on studies and early cleanups of hot spots; in fact, they have spent $40 million on studies and $150 million on the early cleanups. The story misstated John Ryan’s comments. In his prepared remarks, he said the more expansive cleanup plan would double the air pollution and triple the truck traffic, as the story originally stated. In his public testimony, however, he in fact said the plan would double air pollution and truck traffic.

Robert McClure

Robert McClure

Robert is co-founder and executive editor of InvestigateWest. At the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Robert exposed a major weakness in the Endangered Species Act and deficiencies in Puget Sound restoration efforts. His reporting on hard-rock mining won the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, Robert is a longtime former board member of the Society of Environmental Journalists; he currently serves as chair of the editorial board of SEJournal. Seattle Magazine in 2013 chose him as one of Seattle's "most influential" people.

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