By Charles Lam
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Duwamish River has long been a fishing ground for Asian and Pacific Islanders, but what many fishermen may not know is that the native fish can increase a person’s risk of getting cancer.
That is because the sediments in the river have been contaminated by years of industrial production and wastewater runoff. However, after several studies and early-cleanup operations, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has presented its general Duwamish cleanup plan for public comment. The plan aims to reduce 90 percent of the pollution in the river, which has built up over the last century.
“It’s because of all that stuff that’s coming in from roadways that we can’t get to the last 10 percent of the contamination,” said Renée Dagseth, community involvement coordinator at the EPA. “It’s that last 10 percent associated with the way we live, our roadways, storm waters, air pollution, that makes it impossible with today’s technology to get to as clean as we’d like it to be.”
In 1913, work began to reshape the Duwamish River to better support shipping. The lower 12 miles of the river were widened, effectively uncoiling the river and turning it into the lower five miles of the Duwamish Waterway. Much of the area around the river was developed to support manufacturing. Today, except for the communities of South Park and Georgetown, the river’s banks are mostly filled by industry.
In 2001, the EPA declared the Duwamish River a superfund site, a designation assigned to contaminated areas that may endanger public health or the environment, and authorized an in-depth study of the area. The designation allows the EPA to identify parties responsible for the pollution and compel them to clean it up.
The study revealed that a century of pollution from industry and wastewater overflow had left the river sediment contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), arsenic, and other cancer-causing chemicals. Worse yet, fish living in the river for their entire lifetimes were also contaminated by the chemicals and presented a risk to populations who consumed them.
This is especially problematic for the Asian and Pacific American community, as they consume many times more seafood than the general population and are the ethnic group most likely to fish the Duwamish. A 2005 EPA study found that Asian and Pacific Americans in King County eat up to 57 grams of King County-native seafood a day, nearly 10 times more than the seven-and-a-half grams consumed by the general population.
Eating this much fish sourced from the Duwamish corresponds to an excess lifetime cancer risk of 1 in 1,000 — meaning, on average, one more individual in 1,000 would develop cancer due to the chemical exposure from eating the fish.
Net fishermen and clam diggers also face increased risks of cancer due to contact with the sediment — though these risks are not as high and are not present in all areas of the riverbank.
That’s not all residents of the 98108 zip code have to worry about. A recent study funded by the EPA found that residents of South Park and Georgetown in the 98108 zip code live an average of eight years shorter than other King County residents. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 42 percent of people in the zip code identify themselves as Asian or Pacific Islander.
“Duwamish is one of those areas where we have a big concern because a lot of people live here. They tend to be low income, they tend to be diverse, and we know it’s groups that tend to use fish as a resource,” said Allison Hiltner, remedial project manager at the EPA. “It’s a high priority for us in terms of protecting this community. There are sites that are more contaminated than this, but this is a high priority for us because of the population.”
In response to these risks, the Washington State Department of Health has advised residents not to consume fish or shell fish that spend much of their life in the river, such as flounder, perch, rockfish, sole, clams, crab, and mussels. Salmon, which spend most of their lives in the ocean, are safer to eat.
Beaches, for the most part, are also safe for recreational use.
“We’ve tested Duwamish Waterway Park and that area is fine,” Hiltner said. “We always advise that people wash their hands and use practices like that, and there are some beaches that we are going to clean up, but all the public access areas are fine to walk in and enjoy.”
Work to clean up the river’s most polluted areas began in 2003, as the broader plan to clean and maintain the waterway is being put together. Six “early action areas” — the most polluted sites on the Duwamish — have been identified and work on three has already been finished.
Cleanup of the early action sites is projected to reduce pollution in the Duwamish by as much as 50 percent and is scheduled to be completed by 2015. Efforts to clean these sites have been funded by the Lower Duwamish Waterway Group, which includes the Port of Seattle, City of Seattle, King County, and Boeing.
The plan currently under review would remove much of the remaining of contaminants by removing polluted sediment, introducing clean sediment, and reducing the amount of pollution currently entering the river. In total, over 790,000 cubic yards of sediment will be removed and deposited in an inland landfill. The proposed plan would take seven years to implement and an additional 10 years for full effects to be observed. The cleanup would reduce pollution in the Duwamish by 90 percent. In addition, the Department of Ecology is working with businesses and local governments to reduce the amount of pollution entering the river. Public comments are being accepted until June 13.
“Our challenge, aside from the cleanup, is ‘how do we get the word out?’ and what sort of precautionary tools can we use to protect the community in the long term,” Dagseth said.
“That’s where we’re turning to the wisdom of community members to help us figure out what to be most effective.”
“It’s a great opportunity for the community to participate in this study, to shape the future of risk communication, and to make sure we understand their needs,” added Rebecca Chu, another remedial project manager. “This way, we can make sure we can protect the community more effectively than we do now.” (end)
For more information about the Duwamish River, visit www.duwamishcleanup.org.. To leave a comment online, visit www.resolv.org/site-ldpc. For information about the proposed cleanup plan and public meetings hosted on April 30, May 15, and May 29, visit yosemite.epa.gov/r10/cleanup.nsf/sites/lduwamish.
Charles Lam can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.