What is a Toxic Tour?
A Toxic Tour highlights specific locations where inadequate urban planning and poor decision-making by city officials negatively impact health and environmental outcomes for a given community. These sites contribute to the perpetuation of environmental injustice. The goal of the tour is to raise public awareness about these sites in an effort to motivate local, state, and federal officials to take action in shutting them down or take steps toward remediation. The Justice40rward DRCC Toxic Tour highlights some of these areas with tour stops focused on key sites in current and historical struggles for environmental justice.
The Duwamish River in Seattle is a Superfund site due to industrial contamination. Harbor Island and East Waterway are areas within the site. The East Waterway has less protective cleanup standards than the adjacent Lower Duwamish Waterway.
DRCC demands a health-protective cleanup. The EPA will release a new proposed plan for the East Waterway this year. The sediment in the river, which contains toxic chemicals, must be cleaned up for the river to become healthy again. The cleanup is a long-term process requiring the cooperation of stakeholders to restore the river’s health. The cleanup is expected to cost $50 million to clean up less than 5% of the river.
Duwamish/Diagonal Combined Sewer Overflow
A big grate marks a combined sewer overflow on the east side of the river. This overflow, along with 10 others on the river, dumps untreated human and industrial waste into the river whenever there is heavy rain, making it one of the worst toxic hotspots. This site was the first to be cleaned up since being listed as a Superfund site, removing contamination from PCBs, toxic oils, and chemicals used in making plastic.
The community’s involvement in cleanup decisions is crucial to ensure that the cleanup is effective and doesn’t waste money. For example, when the cleanup of this site was initially planned, it would have left a toxic hotspot next to it that would have recontaminated the site within two years. However, with community involvement and advocacy, the other hotspot was included in the cleanup plan to achieve tangible benefits for the river and the community.
Kellog Island and Herring House Park are essential natural and cultural sites along the Duwamish River. Kellog Island is protected and provides a habitat for wildlife. It is necessary to recognize the history and presence of the Duwamish Tribe and their contributions to the area. They help to ensure that the Superfund cleanup protects their cultural resources and the environment.
The Duwamish people have been in the Seattle/Greater King County area since time immemorial. They were the first signatories of the Treaty of Point Elliott in 1855, signed by Chief Si’ahl, chief of the Duwamish and Suquamish tribes. Their longhouse today stands across the street from where one of our largest villages was located before it was burned down by settlers in 1895. They are the host tribe for Seattle, the area’s only indigenous tribe. Many of our enrolled members live on Duwamish aboriginal territory, including Seattle, Burien, Tukwila, Renton, and Redmond.
There are many sources of pollution in the Duwamish River, both historical and ongoing. Over the years, the PCBs and other toxic chemicals accumulated in the sediment seriously threaten the environment and public health even though they were banned over 30 years ago.
All industries and factories operating along the river must take responsibility for their pollution and work towards reducing their impact on the river. Boeing is one of the major contributors to toxic pollution in the river. Many smaller companies, like the shipyard, are responsible for some pollution. Several years ago, one of our group members found the shipyard pumping contaminated water with very high levels of heavy metals (lead, copper, zinc) into the water. The member worked with this shipyard, and today, the water pumping through these pipes is clean. Much more needs to be done to address the more significant issue of pollution in the Duwamish River.
The Duwamish River faces a significant health risk due to mercury contamination, and this glass recycling plant is one of the most affected hotspots. It is likely that the source of mercury contamination is historical, as there is no indication that glass recycling involves the use of mercury. The EPA is responsible for identifying the cause of every contaminated spot to determine who should bear the cleanup costs. Mercury contamination and PCBs are considered a severe health hazards by the Department of Health. The state Department of Health issued an advisory against consuming more than one bottom fish per month from the Duwamish River due to cancer risks and potential health issues for children and pregnant women. Despite the warning, many people fish in the river more than once a month, and others fish daily for food consumption. Cleaning up the river to enable fishing without risking public health is crucial. The river is a shared resource that belongs to everyone.
The first round of Superfund studies was presented to the community in the early 2000s. Two hundred people attended a public meeting where the worst hotspots on the river and proposed cleanup sites were discussed. Two of the most contaminated hotspots, a home and a slip on the east side of the river, were proposed as “early action” cleanup sites due to high levels of PCB contamination. Young salmon leaving the river were found to have enormous levels of PCBs. While it is safe to eat salmon from the river in moderation, all other fish should be avoided, especially by pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children.
Fishing is vital to Duwamish Valley communities, connecting them to their culture and providing affordable food. Immigrant families continue their fishing traditions, while tribes see it as part of their culture and spirituality. It is necessary to prioritize the fishing community’s needs as they are among the most affected.
Boeing Plant 2
The Boeing Company was the largest contaminated river area due to the decades of airplane manufacturing before modern environmental laws. This site has been designated for early action cleanup, with the Boeing Company funding the project. The cleanup has been planned for years and is particularly important due to its proximity to South Park, where many fish and children play. The cleanup used advanced dredging technologies and successfully restored natural habitats, making it one of the best in the nation.
The Turning Basin was used as an industrial wasteland, cleaned up and planted for habitat over the past few years by agencies and volunteers. Although it is now a marsh and intertidal habitat for fish and wildlife, there is still pollution in the area, including a PCB hotspot behind the boat launch. This area has yet to be proposed as an early action cleanup site, and if it is not added to the list, it could take years to see action or change. The early action cleanup plans did not address the top risk to health, which is arsenic. The Duwamish River fishermen are at risk of cancer due to arsenic exposure. The community has urged the EPA to clean up the river of arsenic and other hotspots to protect their health and the environment.