Back From The Brink

Puget Soundkeeper kayaktivists paddle on the Duwamish River. Photo courtesy of Puget Soundkeeper.

Puget Soundkeeper kayaktivists paddle on the Duwamish River. Photo courtesy of Puget Soundkeeper.

On a drizzly Seattle afternoon – April on the calendar, November in the air – an endless parade of tractor-trailers rolls through a towering green gate and enters Terminal 18, the largest shipping terminal in the Pacific Northwest. A forest of huge red cranes looms over barges as long as football fields; longshoremen in hardhats and orange life jackets scramble across the yard. Anchor chains, each link as long as a man’s forearm, lie in rusting piles. Behind a barbed-wire fence, rows of multicolored shipping-containers, stacked like giant Lego bricks, reach for the sky, each cargo-laden block coming from or bound for a distant destination: Shanghai, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur.

This is 400-acre Harbor Island, where the Northwest’s booming economy reckons with its environmental misdeeds. The island sits at the mouth of Seattle’s only river, the Duwamish, and was built from sediment dredged up from the river’s bed in 1909. Its creation was just one of many historical abuses inflicted on the river. The first and, perhaps most grievous, was the dispossession of the Duwamish people, the first human inhabitants of the river, from their ancestral fishing grounds by white settlers in the mid 19th century. In a bitter irony, the City of Seattle took its name from one of the last and greatest Duwamish leaders, Chief Seattle, whose attempts at accommodating the U.S. government and the settlers were met by a series of land grabs and broken agreements, ultimately resulting in the nearly complete expulsion of the Duwamish from the river that had been the center of their communal life for 10,000 years. 

Though early Duwamish explorers lured farmers with reports of a “beautiful plain of unrivaled fertility,” Seattle’s vision for the river soon turned from agriculture to shipping and heavy industry. Starting in 1913, engineers packed the river’s meanders with 20 million tons of mud and sand, separating it from its tributaries. The Duwamish was once a sinuous 13 miles long. Today it’s a ruler-straight five.

A great blue heron perches beside a stormwater outfall on the Duwamish River. Stormwater runoff is the number-one source of toxic pollution in Puget Sound. Photo courtesy of Puget Soundkeeper.

Once the channel had been dredged and the tidal marshes filled in, businesses ranging from food-processing plants to paper mills moved in. Especially devastating were municipal sewer overflows and the arrival of Boeing, which in 1936 purchased a 28-acre parcel of land on the Duwamish and began cranking out B-17 bombers. In 1945, state researchers discovered that hundreds of pounds of polluting waste were flowing from Boeing’s facilities into the Duwamish daily. The company also used coolants rife with PCBs in its manufacturing processes, although at the time little was known about the toxic effects of these new chemical compounds.

Although PCBs were eventually banned, the dumping of other pollutants, such as arsenic and dioxins, continued, and in 2001 the Environmental Protection Agency declared the Lower Duwamish Waterway a Superfund site. Boeing, the City of Seattle, King County, the Port of Seattle and other polluters began preliminary cleanup efforts a few years later, but it wasn’t until December 2014 that the EPA announced its long-overdue final plan. The $342 million scheme calls for dredging up enough toxic muck to fill 29 Olympic swimming pools and burying another 24 acres of river-bottom in sand. The restoration and monitoring will take 17 years.

Such a mistreated body of water would seem to be incapable of supporting life. Yet the Duwamish is still rich with fauna. Herons stalk crabs along Harbor Island’s fringes; in the distance, a harbor seal pops its gleaming head from the iron-colored water. The river supports four species of Pacific salmon, as well as steelhead and cutthroat trout.

“I’ve seen a sea lion come out of the water with a salmon in its mouth right opposite the container facility,” says Puget Soundkeeper Chris Wilke. “I’ve seen ospreys, eagles, diving ducks. I’m constantly amazed by nature here.”

But while the Duwamish may be on the mend, its pollution is far from ancient history. In 2010, Wilke and his team at Puget Soundkeeper discovered that the 196-acre Terminal 18 was discharging illegal quantities of several contaminants into the river, and failing to take action as required by its permit. Puget Soundkeeper sued SSA Terminals, the company that operates the facility. The final settlement, struck in January 2015, not only mandates an extensive cleanup of industrial stormwater discharges – it also puts other facilities on notice that the Duwamish is a dumping-ground no longer.

“In general, things are getting better, but there’s still a fear that industry and our city could re-pollute this river,” Wilke says. “The Duwamish doesn’t have the capacity to absorb more pollutants. We have to give it a chance to recover.”

ew people know the Duwamish as well as Wilke, a tall, sturdily built man with an unruly salt-and-pepper beard, an amiable smile and an intense stare that tells you he means business. He wears an aqua-green Waterkeeper Alliance sturgeon tattooed on his right bicep. In a city whose booming tech industry has attracted a flood of migrants, Wilke is a rare Central Seattle native, and his connection to Puget Sound runs deep. An old Northwest maxim holds that “When the tide is out, the table is set,” and Wilke’s family lived those words, setting traps for Dungeness crabs and digging for littleneck clams. As a youth, he would swim with friends at Gas Works Park, the site of a former gasification plant in the city’s Wallingford neighborhood.

“One day the whole thing was taped off, and there were guys from the EPA in moon suits taking samples,” Wilke recalls. “That was a sign for me that our waters were not so clean.”

Puget Soundkeeper’s boat patrols near SSA’s terminal. Photo courtesy of Puget Soundkeeper.

In college, Wilke decided to pursue a degree in marine science but then switched to follow his other love, music. He eventually sold stereo equipment for more than a decade. “It was a job that turned into a career, without me paying attention,” he likes to say. But he also got serious about fishing. One memorable day, he caught three Coho salmon off a Puget Sound beach – a feat he’s yet to duplicate. As his love for the sound grew stronger, he began asking himself questions about its health, including why there weren’t more salmon swimming in it. “By the end of 2000, I knew the environment wasn’t going to protect itself, it was up to us,” he says. “And I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”

He went back to school to study nonprofit management, and, in 2002, started volunteering at Soundkeeper. Volunteering turned into a job, and the job turned into the directorship and the role of Puget Soundkeeper. All the while, he retained his passion for angling; by now, he’s caught every species of Pacific salmon – on a fly.

“For me, fishing provides that strong connection to place,” Wilke says. “This is the place I want to protect. This is where I make my stand.”

In western Washington, making a stand means tackling the problem of polluted stormwater runoff, which deposits some 14 million pounds of toxic chemicals into Puget Sound annually. When most people think of stormwater pollution, they think of the domestic contaminants – fertilizer, engine oil, paint, gasoline – that wash from driveways and lawns every time it rains. But, although such municipal runoff is indeed a crisis in Puget Sound, the Duwamish is plagued by industrial toxicants, most notably copper and zinc, which flow into the river from the facilities arrayed along its banks. High doses of copper can kill fish, and lower exposures damage their sense of smell, which harms the ability of salmon to migrate and escape predators. Zinc impairs fishes’ reproduction and growth.

Over the years, Soundkeeper has identified and sued dozens of facilities that have discharged illegal amounts of these metals and other pollutants into the Duwamish. Sometimes spotting lawbreakers has been easy. Once, a Soundkeeper patrol happened upon a mile-long oil sheen. Other times they’ve seen suspicious white foam piled up at outfalls. But not all sources of pollution are so obvious, which is why Soundkeeper also scrutinizes the discharge-monitoring reports that facilities have to file four times a year with the state’s Department of Ecology.

Review of one of these reports led to Soundkeeper’s most recent triumph. In 2010, Wilke and his team noticed that two container facilities on Harbor Island – SSA’s Terminal 18 and Total Terminals’ Terminal 46 – were introducing more turbidity and discharging far more copper, zinc, and, in SSA’s case, fecal coliform, than the law allowed. (SSA claimed the coliform was coming from bird excrement; Wilke suspects that it was due to a lack of sanitary facilities for truck drivers.) Nor were these sporadic mistakes. The terminals reported law-breaking activities in all of that year’s quarterly reports.

In 2011, Soundkeeper sued the companies, demanding that they install mandatory stormwater-treatment systems – low-tech boxes that trap pollutants in sand and other filter material. Total Terminals, whose 88-acre Terminal 46 handles some 225,000 containers per year, quickly settled, agreeing to install a treatment system, subject itself to tougher
monitoring, and pay $89,000 to the Puget Sound Stewardship and Mitigation Fund, a program that gives grants to local environmental

groups for projects that improve the sound’s water quality and habitat.

But SSA proved far less pliant, and, much to Soundkeeper’s frustration, Washington’s Department of Ecology didn’t offer much help by enforcing its own laws.

Washington is generally considered a national leader in stormwater regulation. In 2013, for instance, the state phased in rigorous rules, championed by Soundkeeper, that require cities and counties to pursue low-impact development techniques, like permeable pavement and green roofs. Yet, in the wake of Soundkeeper’s lawsuit with SSA, the Department of Ecology granted Terminal 18 a waiver from having to meet water-quality standards, claiming, in effect, that SSA was already doing enough to clean up its act.

“That’s just crazy,” says Katelyn Kinn, staff attorney for Soundkeeper. “This site was clearly discharging pollution, but Department of Ecology tried to let it off the hook,”

Soundkeeper managed to get the waiver struck down by the Pollution Control Hearings Board, but the fight was far from over. SSA put out an engineering report that called for stormwater treatment on a measly six acres of the terminal – just three percent of its total area – and the Department of Ecology accepted the plan.

“The state seems to be content with progress,” Wilke complains. “As long as the situation on the ground is getting a little better, they feel like they’re doing a good job.”

But Soundkeeper still had the Clean Water Act on its side, and as the trial date drew closer, SSA had little choice but to sit down at the negotiating table and consent to a deal. The settlement, reached in January, was a decisive victory for clean water: Far from the three-percent- solution originally proposed, the company agreed that 50 percent of Terminal 18 would receive stormwater treatment, and another 40 percent of the site would be subject to stronger monitoring. If the latter portion doesn’t meet standards, it, too, must be treated. A treatment system, which Wilke says could end up costing SSA some $10 million, will be installed by 2020. And SSA will pay $215,000 to the Puget Sound Stewardship and Mitigation Fund.

“It shows that, even if Ecology is willing to succumb to industry pressure, we won’t stand for that,” says Kinn. “We weren’t going to be scared away just because they wanted a fight.”

“The SSA settlement is a triumph of citizen oversight,” said Richard Smith of Smith and Lowney, PLLC, one of Soundkeeper’s attorneys on the case. “Without citizens holding them accountable, SSA would have received a pass from the state on the work needed to control their pollution to the Duwamish River.”

lthough Soundkeeper’s settlements will help avert new pollution, and the EPA’s cleanup plan will gradually improve this damaged waterway, the river’s advocates are under no illusions about the difficulties ahead.

“We’re still looking at a 20-year period,” B.J. Cummings, former Puget Soundkeeper and now development-and-policy advisor with the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, told High Country News in December. “That’s a whole other generation of families growing up with poison fish on the table.”

Given that progress sometimes seems to advance as slowly as the glaciers that once carved Puget Sound, an environmentalist could be forgiven for growing discouraged. But Wilke remains undaunted. For the first time in many years, the river’s defenders can plausibly imagine a future in which Department of Health advisories against eating fish and shellfish are lifted, salmon recover their historic abundance, and water quality satisfies Clean Water Act standards. 

“It may take a long time before all that is achieved, but that’s what the law requires – so why shouldn’t it happen?” demands Wilke. “It’s a lot of hard work, but we accumulate victories along the way.”

Shortly before we went to press with this issue, Puget Soundkeeper Chris Wilke contacted us with an anecdote that seemed the perfect coda to Ben Goldfarb’s story. “One afternoon, a man came into Soundkeeper’s office,” Chris said, “and told us his name was Ken Workman and he was a member of the Duwamish Tribal Council. Not only that, but the great Duwamish leader Chief Seattle was his great, great, great, great grandfather. I told him about Soundkeeper’s long-standing work to protect his ancestral waterway, and after listening he said he would like to become a member of our organization. He added that he would like Soundkeeper’s staff to share widely that the Duwamish people support the work of Puget Soundkeeper. We work hard to earn people’s respect for our mission and our work, but praise from a descendant of the original stewards of the river was in a whole new category.”

Ben Goldfarb is a correspondent at High Country News, a magazine that covers environmental issues in the American West. His writing has also appeared in Scientific American, Earth Island Journal, and Hakai Magazine. He tweets at @ben_a_goldfarb.


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