Photo depicting community members marching across a bridge holding various signs that have slogans like "Keep our river clean" written on them.

Duwamish River Cleanup Rally Challenges EPA Proposed Changes

by Ronnie Estoque

Cars honked and community members chanted while crossing the South Park Bridge on Friday, Sept. 24. They were voicing concerns over the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed changes to the cleanup of the Duwamish River. In 2001, the Duwamish River was listed as a federal Superfund site, one of the country’s most toxic hazardous-waste sites.

“We’re asking for this river to get cleaned up the way we agreed to in 2014 … to change things now makes no sense at all,” James Rasmussen, Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition (DRCC) Superfund manager and member of the Duwamish Tribe, said. “That’s why we’re here today. We want to clean this river the best possible way we can.”

Early 1900s industrialization of the surrounding area brought with it factories. As a result, toxic chemicals — sometimes carried in stormwater runoff, wastewater, or through other industrial practices — were allowed to pollute the Duwamish River. Several new EPA proposals include lessening requirements for cleanup of cancer-causing hydrocarbons (cPAHs) and weakening cleanup levels for PCBs, dioxins/furans (highly toxic industrial compounds that can build up in fish) and arsenic, as compared to the initial 2014 cleanup order.

The crowd began their assembly at the South Park Plaza, where community members made their own signs and listened to speakers discuss current issues affecting the Duwamish River, which runs directly through the South Park community. Those speakers included Paulina López, a South Park local who serves as the executive director of the DRCC, and Adrienne Hampton, climate policy and engagement manager of the DRCC. A variety of chants (“Clean the river!”) continued throughout the evening. 

According to an online petition created by the DRCC, three of the EPA’s proposed changes to the river cleanup will “increase toxic exposures and health risks to our community.” Over 1,500 people have signed the DRCC’s petition thus far, which demands that the EPA abides by “community involvement, consultation, and agreement to all changes to the river cleanup.” An estimated 100 people were in attendance for the rally, with youth showing up in large numbers.

According to an EPA document describing their proposal changes, the push to change cleanup guidelines is economically motivated, “EPA estimates that the change to the Remedial Action Level (RAL) for cPAHs will ultimately reduce active cleanup areas by about five acres and reduce the cleanup cost estimate by about $1 million.” 

Several prominent Women of Color candidates for the Port of Seattle Commission were also in attendance for the rally and voiced their support for community members in attendance. Beacon Hill’s Toshiko Grace Hasegawa who is running for the Port Commission Position 4 seat, spoke to the large crowd about the importance of advocating for a cleaner Duwamish River.

“I look to my daughter and I look to the same [Puget] Sound where I used to watch the whales and I wonder if she’s gonna get to enjoy the beauty of this region the way our elders did before us,” Hasegawa said, her young daughter sitting in front of her in a stroller.

Hasegawa also expressed her support for Hamdi Mohamed, current policy advisor for the King County Executive Office of Equity and Social Justice, who was also in attendance and is running for Port Commission Position 3. If either is elected into their positions after the November elections, it will be the first time the Port of Seattle has had a Woman of Color serve on the Port Commission.

“I am someone who cares deeply about our environment, our community and really believes in public participation and ensuring that our government should be more accountable, more transparent,” Mohamed said.

Rasmussen has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the environment and climate around the Duwamish River through his role on the tribal council and hopes that a successful cleanup can be completed to ensure that nature is preserved for future generations. A timeline for the Duwamish River cleanup can be viewed on the EPA Superfund Site’s Lower Duwamish Waterway webpage

“The variety of wildlife that we have today here is more than any other place in the City of Seattle … imagine what it could be like once we get the rest of the job done,” Rasmussen said. “We’re the estuary; this is where the saltwater and freshwater meet, and it becomes the most important area all the way through our city and one of the most important areas in the Northwest.”

Ronnie Estoque is a South Seattle-based freelance photographer and videographer. You can keep up with his work by checking out his website.

📸 Featured Image: Community members chanted “Clean the river!” as they marched across the South Park Bridge during a Sept. 24 rally protesting the EPA’s proposed changes to the cleanup of the Duwamish River. (Photo: Ronnie Estoque)

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