December 3, 2014

Bigger cleanup, but no end to fishing restrictions on the Duwamish

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Seattle’s biggest toxic mess is going to take more cleanup than previously thought, federal officials said Tuesday in releasing their plan for the Duwamish River Superfund site. But when the cleanup is finished, people will still be warned against eating seafood from the river, officials acknowledged.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s final cleanup plan boosts by one-fifth the amount of river bottom to be dredged up and hauled away. In a draft plan released last year, EPA said it would require 84 acres of contaminated river bottom to be removed, while the final plan released Tuesday would expand that to 105 acres. The cost for the remaining work increases from $305 million to $342 million.

That accumulated pollution from a century of industrial activity, municipal sewage, and stormwater runoff contaminates not just the riverbed but also marine life. For decades, almost no fish or seafood caught in the river has been safe for people to eat, although authorities have been unable to keep people from fishing there.

Key questions left unanswered Tuesday were how safe Duwamish seafood will be after the cleanup, and to what degree people will ever again be able to safely eat the fish. In any case, the river cleanup will end up taking a full generation. The Duwamish was designated a Superfund site in 2001. About half the pollution has been dug out so far. Further dredging is expected to start in 2015 and last seven years. Then it will take another 10 years for fish pollution levels to be reduced to the maximum extent under the cleanup blueprint EPA selected, the agency said.

“We think this plan gets it right,” said Dennis McLerran, head of EPA’s Seattle-based Region 10. “This cleanup plan keeps the Duwamish River open for business and will reduce risks” to locals who fish for their dinner, people playing in the river and to Duwamish wildlife.

McLerran acknowledged the health risks right now. “We know people are eating resident fish and shellfish from the Duwamish that are unsafe to eat,” he said.

“Over time, our plan will result in a cleaner river and we believe less restrictive fish consumption advisories will be required,” he added.

However, in a briefing for news reporters, he said that at least some fishing restrictions will be needed indefinitely.

The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, a watchdog group of environmentalists, community groups, Duwamish tribal members and others, has advocated for greatly increasing the amount of safe seafood available through a more aggressive cleanup strategy. The coalition said on Tuesday that it plans to continue to push for cleanup over and above what the EPA plan mandates.

Seventeen years to be able to eat safer fish “is very optimistic. We think that 20 years is overly optimistic,” said BJ Cummings, policy advisor for the coalition.

“Already 20 years is another generation of kids growing up with toxic fish on the table,” she said. “We don’t want to see even another 20 years. There’s a good chance it’ll take 30 or 40 years.”

The coalition is concerned that the EPA is allowing some of the contaminated river bottom to remain undisturbed, where it will be capped or covered with sand and rocks or left to be buried by dirt, sand and mud that naturally wash downriver. If the buried sediment is disturbed by boats running aground or an earthquake, for example, toxic sediments could reenter the marine food chain. The coalition’s $500-million cleanup proposal – significantly costlier than EPA’s plan – would haul out more of the pollution. Polluters, including local governments, are on the hook to pay for any cleanup.

Three local governments who are partnering with The Boeing Co. on Duwamish cleanup reacted cautiously to EPA’s announcement. The city of Seattle, King County and the Port of Seattle said they wanted time to absorb the details of the 181-page “record of decision” issued by EPA on Tuesday. They had pushed for less dredging of contaminated sediments, not more.

The governments and Boeing had argued that EPA’s previous pegging of likely cleanup costs at $305 million was an underestimate of the true price. Now EPA is ordering even more dredging, which is expensive compared to leaving contamination in place. (And that doesn’t include some $190 million already spent by Boeing and the local governments planning the cleanup and carrying out dredging 29 acres of known pollution “hot spots.” Nor does it include costs for the state Ecology Department to fan out across the 32-square-mile area between West Seattle and Beacon Hill to clean up pollution before it flows into the river. Ecology has asked Gov. Jay Inslee and the Legislature for $1.5 million to ramp up that work next year.)

“It’s an historic decision that follows 14 years of scientific research and public engagement,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said in a written statement. “It’s also a complex decision, one which we must review closely to understand what it will mean for King County and the health, economy, and environment of the Lower Duwamish, where communities face some of the greatest challenges.”

The risk of leaving Duwamish seafood unsafe to consume is that, even now, convincing people not to fish has proved impossible.

In the neighborhoods surrounding the Duwamish, about one person in five is Asian-American or a Pacific Islander, and nearly one in five is Hispanic. Those who fish the river tend to be poor and rely on seafood to supplement their diets.

EPA is signing on to a strategy known bureaucratically as “institutional controls.” Translated: We will warn people to limit their consumption of Duwamish seafood.

Currently, the government’s advice is: Don’t eat anything out of the Duwamish River except the salmon that swim through on their way to and from the ocean. Anything else is just too bound up in a toxic food chain that promotes cancer and other diseases.

But people eat the fish anyway. The EPA’s own 2014 tentative cleanup proposal for the Duwamish cleanup acknowledges that institutional controls are “difficult to monitor,” that advisories distributed to the public are “not enforceable” and that they “have historically had limited effectiveness according to published studies and EPA’s experience.”

But that’s the plan.

Correction: This story initially said the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition plan called for EPA to require removal of all the pollution in the riiver. The coalition’s plan called for EPA to require removal of more pollution, but not all of it.

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