Keywords: Water quality, Human quality of life, Environmental justice, Toxic contaminants, Tribes, History, Persistent contaminants, Salish Sea Currents magazine

Years of struggle have led to reduced pollution and a stronger sense of community in the Duwamish Valley. As cleanup efforts there continue, environmental justice has come front and center for the area's diverse populations.

Seattle’s Duwamish Valley, with its 5.5-mile-long Superfund site, is considered one of the most highly polluted areas in the country. Experts have documented 150 years of ecological destruction, human anguish and health problems, as political and business leaders systematically converted a naturally flourishing Duwamish River into an industrialized waterway that became a powerful hub of commerce.

Despite a toxic legacy of massive proportions, communities have endured among the industrial facilities. Area residents have shown a remarkable resilience, and in recent years a renewed sense of optimism has emerged. Government leaders have become part of an awakening conscience and growing commitment to make things better. Duwamish residents now provide an example of how people can come together to formulate a strategy for vanquishing pollution and strengthening the heart of a community.

“It took leadership to build the industrial area,” acknowledges James Rasmussen, a member of the Duwamish Tribe who has been a key player in the community revival, “but now we have to show a new kind of leadership. We have to make sure that we set a high standard.”

Rasmussen, who directed the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition for eight years, provides a practical and spiritual voice. By setting a high standard for cleanup and never giving up, he believes the people will one day breathe the air, eat the fish and enjoy living in the area without worrying about their health. People can make a difference, he says, not only in the Duwamish Valley but in every polluted area in the Puget Sound region.

While it is impossible to turn back the clock on health problems already experienced by people living or working near toxic sites, a commitment to environmental justice involves treating all people fairly while eliminating threats of pollution and considering disparities in race, income and other historical inequities.

Duwamish history

From the very beginnings of Seattle in the 1850s, business leaders viewed the Duwamish River as more than an immediate conduit for farm products, lumber, fish, coal and other natural resources brought down from upstream areas. They set their sights on worldwide commerce and a future harbor that could service the largest ships ever built. By 1913, Seattle leaders were putting into action a plan to create an industrial waterway.

Two communities — Georgetown and South Park — were growing up alongside Seattle to support a growing population and a commercial base. Residents of the wider Duwamish Valley included members of the Duwamish Tribe, who had resisted efforts to displace them from their ancestral home and place them on reservations elsewhere in Puget Sound. Despite thousands of years of attachment to these lands and waters, the tribe was never allowed its own reservation nor officially recognized as a governing entity.

By 1900, Georgetown was an established community, home to Seattle Brewing and Malting Co., the origins of Rainier Beer. It became the service headquarters for the Seattle Tacoma Interurban Railway, with electric streetcars running between Everett, Seattle and Tacoma. The Seattle Race Course, built in 1869, attracted visitors from throughout the region and led to other adult-entertainment businesses. By 1903, seven saloons were in operation along with five grocery stores and four churches, according to historian David Wilma. Brewery and transportation workers included immigrants from Germany and Belgium.

Voters chose to incorporate Georgetown in 1904 rather than allow a shutdown of area saloons under a new state law prohibiting liquor licenses within a mile of an incorporated city. The town’s businesses continued to flourish along with industrial growth along the waterway. The population grew from 1,913 in 1900 to about 7,000 in 1910, when Georgetown — with 24 saloons at the time — was annexed into Seattle by popular vote.

Meanwhile, South Park, across the river and southwest of Georgetown, had been growing as a farming community, including a mill, livery stable and various stores. Italian and Japanese farmers sold their products locally until 1907, when they began selling directly to consumers at Seattle Public Farmer’s Market on Pike Place in Seattle. South Park, which became a city in 1905, was soon annexed into Seattle in 1907, when the population was 1,500.

October 1913 marked the beginning of a massive public-works project that would forever change the nature of the Duwamish River and its nearby communities. A new 132-foot-long dredge named Duwamish No. 1 was constructed for the job. For the next seven years, the steam-powered dredge, along with steam shovels and dragline excavators, cut away the riverbanks and carved out a new 4.5-mile-long channel renamed the Duwamish Waterway. Nine miles of meandering river were erased to form a straight-edged, deep-water port with turnaround bays for large ships.

Visualization of the historic and present course of the Duwamish River. Images: Burke Museum Waterline Project.

Visualization of the historic and present course of the Duwamish River. Images: Burke Museum Waterline Project.

The result was an influx of new industry along the canal. Businesses that moved cargo via ships, trucks and rail were soon joined by other large-scale operations, including shipbuilding, paper milling, metal fabrication, cement production and food processing.

The Boeing Company got its start in aircraft manufacturing in a Duwamish shipyard purchased by William Boeing in 1910. The company’s expansion included construction of two additional plants on the Duwamish and conversion of the former Meadows Race Track into what became known as Boeing Field.

Ongoing industrial expansion led to extensive pollution of the water, soil and air. For years, various companies spilled and disposed of industrial chemicals and waste byproducts along the waterway and into the upper watershed. By the mid-1950s millions of gallons of hazardous waste had been dumped, some legally but much illegally, according to BJ Cummings, who worked with Rasmussen on the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition and told the Duwamish story in her book “The River that Made Seattle: A Human and Natural History of the Duwamish.”

People of the river

As the industrial facilities multiplied through the years, Seattle city officials seemed to forget about the people living in the area. In 1956, the city approved a comprehensive plan that designated the area — including Georgetown and South Park — as “transition to industrial,” said Cummings, who now serves as community engagement manager in the University of Washington’s Superfund Research Program.

By the 1990s, environmental investigators were uncovering huge quantities of buried industrial wastes, some leaching their toxic chemicals into the Duwamish River.

South Park residents were not ready for any further “transition” and opposed efforts to extinguish this historic neighborhood of people with mixed ethnic backgrounds. A few descendants of early Italian and Japanese farmers still lived in the community, although most of the Japanese American families went elsewhere after they were released from World War II internment camps. African American and Latino families gradually moved in, followed later by Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants.

In 1967, yielding to demands from business interests, the city took steps to rezone the entire Duwamish Valley for industry. South Park residents mobilized to preserve their community, Cummings said, describing one divisive hearing before the Seattle planning commission.

“My folks grew the first crops that went into the Pike Place Market,” said then-resident Tony Ferrucci, quoted in the Seattle Daily Times after the hearing. “Ours is typical of the old South Park families who want to keep on living where [we grew up]. What am I supposed to do, throw my parents in the garbage can?’’

The protests became public and drawn out, and the residents eventually persuaded city leaders to remove the designation “transition to industrial,” thus extending the life of the residential community.

By the 1990s, environmental investigators were uncovering huge quantities of buried industrial wastes, some leaching their toxic chemicals into the Duwamish River. The river also was absorbing polluted stormwater from industrial runoff along with mixtures of stormwater and raw sewage discharged during frequent heavy rains.

All the while, some tribal members carried on their fishing traditions despite the polluted waters. Asian and Latino immigrants with their own fishing customs also frequented the river. While these fishermen and their families may not have fully grasped the health risks, outsiders often failed to appreciate the cultural values of these various fishing traditions. A later study by University of Washington researcher Amber Lenhart concluded that preventing people from fishing could reduce their nutrition and increase their stress, resulting in even worse health effects.

“If it’s a choice between a free fish or a one-dollar Big Mac, fish is going to have better nutrition,” Lenhart told Cummings. “But the social connections, physical activity, and nature contact are health supporting as well.”

In 2001, the Duwamish River was declared a federal Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency. More than 40 chemicals were listed as exceeding safe levels for human health, according to initial findings. Following two years of further study, five hotspots were identified as “early action areas” based on known and predicted hazards.

Community takes on challenges

In the wake of the Superfund designation for the Duwamish Waterway, the Duwamish Tribe along and nine community and environmental organizations formed the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group. The DRCC/TAG was recognized and funded by the EPA as a “community advisory group” — an official liaison between government, technical experts and the people affected by pollution. The coalition was able to exert political power far beyond that of the individual groups alone.

Once experts began searching in earnest, sources of pollution seemed to be everywhere, from toxic compounds used as sealants in buildings and pavement to leaking 55-gallon drums of unknown wastes buried underground. Disagreements erupted over how to go about cleaning up the mess, as business, government entities and environmental groups put forth different ideas.

One hot-button issue was the cleanup of what was called Terminal 117 or the Malarkey property, which had been home to multiple asphalt businesses from 1937 to 1993. The Port of Seattle acquired the abandoned property in 1999. Some of the oil used in the asphalt operation had been salvaged from electrical transformers and contained toxic PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) released into air and runoff from the site.

During the sampling of soils in the area, dangerous levels of PCBs were found not only on the Malarkey site but in the dirt of unpaved streets, parking strips, private yards and gardens, with lower levels inside homes.

The initial plan put forth by the EPA was to pave the dirt roads to lock in the PCBs while replacing contaminated soils with clean soils on surrounding properties. But on the Malarkey property itself, the plan was to restrict future uses to only industrial activities, thus allowing for PCB levels 10 times higher than normally permitted by state law.

“The South Park community was stunned,” wrote Cummings in her book, adding that the plan would not only leave contaminated soils near people’s houses but would poke a hole in the dream of eventually using the waterfront Malarkey property for commercial or even recreational purposes.

“In a last-ditch effort to change the plan, the DRCC held a series of meetings with members of the Seattle Port Commission,” Cummings wrote. “In addition to raising environmental justice issues — challenging them to consider whether they would support such a decision near the homes of Seattle’s wealthier residents — coalition members emphasized the financial implications of the permanent liability the commission would incur by leaving PCBs buried on their property.”

At a Port Commission meeting in 2006, many South Park residents showed up to protest the plan. Some lamented the long-term chemical exposures their families had endured. Others called it environmental racism to continue burdening this largely Latino community with an unhealthy future.

The commission listened, and at its next meeting endorsed a bold new plan to remove the toxic soils and restore the property for salmon and wildlife habitat. The fish-and-wildlife project, started last summer and scheduled for completion this fall, includes 1,000 feet of pathways into the new habitat with viewing platforms and a 185-foot viewpoint pier.

The Duwamish River People's Park and Shoreline Habitat (formerly Terminal 117) project will restore 14 acres of habitat and shoreline access. Image: Port of Seattle.

Community strengthens its identity

The outcome for the Malarkey property did not end the clashes over what levels of pollution should be allowed to remain in various areas. Area by area, the question was “How clean is clean?” But residents of South Park, Georgetown and the surrounding areas seemed to find a renewed spirit of unity as they developed a shared vision for the future.

An overriding goal was to restore the river — perhaps not to its original grandeur but to a condition where the fish would be healthy enough to eat and the environment could make a comeback. A report on the community’s overall vision, published in 2009, also called for revitalized neighborhoods — including parks, green spaces, trees and trails, along with affordable housing. With a grant from the EPA, the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition worked with the community on projects spelled out in the plan, such as planting trees and engaging youths in fun and constructive activities.

Paulina López, who moved from Ecuador 16 years ago, found a welcoming home in South Park where a fair number of people looked and talked like her and made her feel welcome. She became part of the community and later created the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps Program for the DRCC.

“Youth didn’t have a lot to do.,” she said, “and we wanted to create a positive environment with an emphasis on what they want to see in their community.”

A group of youth posing next to a street mural.

Students with the Duwamish Valley Youth Corp designed a street art mural in 2019 as part of the South Park Riverwalk, a network of shoreline public spaces along the Duwamish River. Photo: SDOT (CC BY-NC 2.0)  

The youth corps engages in neighborhood cleanups, restoration and maintenance, garden construction, and science projects, including an analysis of local air quality. Goals of the youth program include improving job skills, speaking abilities and community organizing. In 2018, the Port of Seattle created an internship program to further the advancement of the community’s young people, including those from low-income and immigrant families.

“We are very proud of some of them,” López said. “We are hoping they become the next scientists and elected officials.”

Two years ago, López took over as director of DRCC from Rasmussen, who took a role as superfund manager for the organization.

Today, the community remains one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the Puget Sound region. The South Park population is nearly 40 percent Latino, with another 14 percent Asian, 8 percent African American, and 34 percent other “non-white” or multiracial, including Pacific Islanders and Native Americans. Residents identifying as “white” comprise 44 percent of the South Park population, as compared with a Seattle average of 70 percent.

By income, South Park averaged $18,575 per person, compared to Georgetown, $23,936; Seattle, $40,868; and King County, $38,211, according to the 2013 study.

Life expectancy for Georgetown and South Park averages 73 years, compared to 82 years for both Seattle and King County and 86 years for the more wealthy residents of Seattle’s Laurelhurst area. Deaths caused by heart disease is listed at 203 per 100,000 population in the Duwamish, compared to 138 for Seattle and King County and 90 for Laurelhurst. About 12 percent of the Duwamish residents suffer from asthma, compared to a citywide average of 9 percent.

Environmental justice takes hold

Environmental justice became a conspicuous force in the Duwamish Valley in 2013, when a health-related study was completed on the Superfund cleanup with a separate analysis focused on EJ. The goals of EJ had been formally articulated in 1994, when President Bill Clinton issued an executive order spelling out new requirements for federal agencies involved in matters of human health and the environment. Despite the order, the diverse population in the Duwamish Valley had received no special consideration when cleanup plans were initially developed during the George W. Bush administration.

President Barack Obama, who came into office in 2009, had been calling for a wider and more aggressive examination of environmental justice issues nationwide. He soon convened a forum involving five cabinet secretaries and more than 100 environmental leaders to discuss EJ reforms. With that renewed commitment from Obama, the Duwamish review became the first federal EJ study to account for community needs at such a deep level.

As a key example of its effect, the EJ analysis concluded that issuing permanent warnings against fishing in the Lower Duwamish Waterway (LDW) imposed an unfair burden upon subsistence and tribal fishers living in the community. At the time, the EPA was considering such “institutional controls” in lieu of cleaning up the contamination to higher standards.

Photo: Public Health — Seattle & King County

“Advising fish consumers of the LDW to avoid eating fish may be akin to recommending abandonment of their cultural heritage and identity,” the report states. “Restrictions on fish consumption may also lead to short- and long-term changes in diet with significant health consequences.”

The analysis suggested that cleanup planners work with the community to develop mitigation measures, such as providing transportation to healthier fishing locations, building aquaculture facilities where people could raise their own fish, or setting up a trading system in which contaminated fish could be exchanged for cleaner fish.

The recognition of community needs helped to galvanize the local residents in support of a more complete cleanup effort, although the levels of allowable pollution — most notably PCBs — remained the focus of technical and legal debates.

In 2014, the EPA concluded its findings with an order to control ongoing sources of pollution and clean up sediments in the Duwamish leading to PCB levels no higher than 2 parts per billion. That level was considered to be consistent with background levels for PCBs in Puget Sound, which faces ongoing contamination from atmospheric deposition.

The cleanup plan, expected to cost $342 million, involves three types of projects across 177 acres: dredging of contaminated sediments, “capping” with a layer of clean sediments, and natural recovery that allows normal sedimentation to gradually bury any remaining contamination.

Before the prescribed sediment cleanup begins, the Department of Ecology is actively working with property owners to control pollution coming from 24 upstream sites, using authorities under the state’s Model Toxics Control Act. The upstream priority is to avoid recontamination of sediments following cleanup in downstream areas. The five early-action areas moved ahead the rest to remove roughly half the total PCBs in the river by 2018.

As the cleanup continues, the EPA has developed a plan of temporary institutional controls to warn the public about contaminated fish and shellfish. Produced in collaboration with local fishers, written materials — including pocket cards and coloring books in four languages — help people understand that migrating salmon are much safer to eat than “resident” salmon, bottom fish, shellfish and crabs from the area.

As for the role of local government, both Seattle and King County have undergone a “real turnaround” from what once seemed like distant political authorities, according to Rasmussen. “The mayor now comes to South Park and talks with the people, as do members of the city and county councils.”

Under the city’s Duwamish Valley Action Plan, which was developed in discussions between city officials and areas residents, the city is working to improve the environment, develop parks and open spaces, provide jobs and economic opportunities, create affordable housing and increase public safety.

In many ways, the biggest challenge facing the community now grows out of the long and continuing struggle to improve the community. People with higher incomes are attracted to the area. Rising property values and higher rents have forced lower-income families to move away and some small businesses to close down.

Having survived the injustice of industrial pollution, these lower-income families — including people of color and diverse ethnicities — must now find ways to keep from being forced out of their own communities. The Duwamish Valley Affordable Housing Coalition, with support from government and nongovernment grants, is working to maintain existing housing at affordable rents and to create new housing that can be sold to lower-income families.

Issues of environmental justice, affordable housing and community identity create ongoing challenges, not only in the Duwamish Valley but in large and small communities throughout Washington state. As Duwamish residents are learning, the future depends on the values of the local people, support from outsiders and commitments from government.


A rusty radiator and other debris in sediment of the Duwamish River at low tide.

An update to state rules regarding the cleanup of toxic pollution is expected to bring more attention to factors like race, ethnicity and income within populations that live near contaminated sites.


Historic map of Seattle showing areas in different colors.

Researchers are looking at the forces of discrimination that worsen the environmental health risks for some communities.


Washington state capital dome against blue sky

The recently approved HEAL Act requires the state of Washington to address issues of environmental justice within its agencies. The Act is expected to be signed by the governor and focuses on inequities in environmental health conditions for disenfranchised populations.

About the author: Christopher Dunagan is a senior writer at the Puget Sound Institute.

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