November 2, 2011

EPA grant to help Duwamish Valley residents, businesses prioritize health needs

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, saying south Seattle’s pollution-scarred Duwamish Valley needs help to sort through health and environmental problems, on Tuesday awarded a $100,000 grant to local groups to examine health risks and come up with strategies to improve conditions.

The valley between West Seattle and Beacon Hill  encompasses the neighborhoods of South Park and Georgetown, which have disproportionately large minority and low-income populations, as well as the industry-packed Duwamish River. The river has been declared a Superfund site under federal law, meaning it’s one of the most-polluted sites in the country.

The grant announced Tuesday is to examine health issues outside the immediate area of the Superfund site.  Across south Seattle, as InvestigateWest has documented, residents face a plethora of health issues, including toxic air pollution, the highest rate in King County of kids hospitalized for asthma, residents eating contaminated seafood, and the fact that the area is a “food desert” because of a lack of fresh groceries. A separate $50,000 grant will help the groups advise EPA about health issues related to the Superfund site itself.

“With our partners, we will make a difference,” said James Rasmussen, executive director of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group, “… not just to make plans but to take action.”

The grant is to:

  • Get together residents, businesses, local governments and others in a partnership.
  • Home in on environmental threats and how those affect people’s health.
  • Prioritize the order in which health risks should be dealt with.
  • Look for ways to reduce or eliminate those risks.

Rasmussen emphasized that the coalition and its partners – other non-profit groups, government agencies and a unit of the University of Washington – are intent on working with area businesses:  “We must work through this together. … Together we will thrive and celebrate the happy, healthful lives of our families.”

The grant grows out of a “visioning” exercise that helped set goals of integrating economic development with pollution cleanup and new features such as grocery stores and a public swimming pool. The Duwamish Valley has long been treated as a second-class area, critics say, citing lack of opportunities for exercise, limited choices for health care, difficult transportation options and other problems faced by area residents.

“We are evolving a new vision of what the Duwamish can be for the people of Seattle,” said Seattle City Council member Richard Conlin at an announcement at the Duwamish Tribe’s longhouse on Marginal Way. “It’s great that we can say we are taking this big step toward environmental justice for our people.”

Dennis McLerran, administrator of EPA’s Seattle-based region 10, noted that the Community Action for a Renewed Environment grant is about “empowering communities.“

“I’m really excited to see this money come here and see the community come together,” said McLerran, standing next to an oversized copy of the $100,000 check he signed for the grant. “It’s critically important work for the community.”

Organizers envision coming back for a second phase of the program, at a cost of $250,000. Ultimately, if area residents can learn to work together with area businesses, the day might come when there is no need for the cleanup coalition, said coalition director Rasmussen in an interview.

“If we can bridge the gap between the community and industry … this will be a dynamic community,” Rasmussen said. “The community can help the industries. It’s like two power cords waiting to be connected.”

Area businesses, particularly those near the river, have been concerned that they may get socked with large portions of the cleanup costs as part of the Superfund process. Many already are dealing with the EPA because of it.

King County Executive Dow Constantine pledged to continue cleaning up the sewage system that systematically dumps raw sewage into the Duwamish, usually during times of heavy rain. In an interview, he said those efforts should be combined with those to get a handle on the much-larger volumes of less-polluted – but still filthy – stormwater that flows off parking lots, roofs and streets after it rains. He called for using “green infrastructure” that slurps up the stormwater before it causes the sewage overflows, as well as traditional methods that capture the dirty water and store it in large underground vaults.

“We have to address these intertwined problems,” Constantine said. “We shouldn’t view them in isolation.”

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