I had the pleasure of taking a boat tour of the Duwamish Waterway as part of the Port101 educational program offered by the Port of Seattle, together with its partners: Lower Duwamish Waterway Group (Boeing, City of Seattle, King County, Port of Seattle), Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, Manufacturing Industrial Council, Vigor Shipyards, and Delta Marine Industries. As the boat cruised upriver, a variety of speakers provided an in-depth narrative with stories of the past and current inhabitants of the waterway, both businesses and peoples.
In 1913, the Duwamish River was tamed, removing the common problem of flooding and improving access for ship traffic when a 9-mile stretch of the meandering, shallow river was shaped and formed into a 5-mile stretch of dredged channel – the Lower Duwamish Waterway. Historically, the river was the breadbasket of the greater Seattle area. Foods were brought by canoe from the shores of the river to market. Fishing was – and still is – fruitful. Six salmon species return upriver to spawn each year. With the dredging of the channel and the creation of Harbor Island from those dredge materials and material from the Denny and Jackson regrade projects, industry began to take hold along the river. Today, the five-mile-long Duwamish Waterway provides over 100,000 jobs and represents 80% of Seattle’s industrial land. Most of the businesses along the river are family-owned and provide family-wage jobs. Vigor Shipyards, Delta Marine Industries, Alaska Marine Lines and many others line the waterway.
As industry replaced homes and small farms, toxic waste became more of an issue. Until 1958, untreated sewage was directed to the Duwamish. Even since then, sewage overflows have continued to be emptied into the river. By the 1970s, abuse of the waterway was rampant. If there was a toxic spill on the river, it was intentional. ‘Dilution was the solution to pollution’ – it was common practice to toss industrial waste into the river, with the thought that it would be diluted and carried out to sea. In 2001, the Lower Duwamish was declared a Superfund Site, placing it on the Environmental Protection Agency‘s list of the nation’s most contaminated sites. The EPA has now released it’s Proposed Clean-up Plan, which provides for 7 years of active clean-up measures followed by 10 years of hoped-for “natural recovery.” Slowly, progress towards protecting the Duwamish is being made.
Several ‘Early Action’ Clean-up Sites have already been completed or are underway, many spearheaded by local businesses along the river. Seattle Iron and Metals, one of the Northwest’s leading recyclers of metals, was relocated by the Port of Seattle to a site upriver. The facility sits along the shore on 9.5 acres of 10-inch thick concrete capping a sophisticated water catchment and treatment facility. Alaska Marine Lines, in collaboration with the University of Washington, installed a catchment and treatment system in 1989 that treats storm water runoff to household standards before it is released into the waterway.
Boeing has undertaken the removal, clean up and restoration of Plant 2, the second manufacturing plant built and run by Boeing, where ‘Rosie the Riveter’ worked building military aircraft during WWII. Much of the plant had been built on pilings over the river, and the soil in and near the river had become contaminated after decades of manufacturing on the site. Boeing will be removing the remaining structure, overhanging tarmac and pilings and will remove over 200,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the site. All building materials will be recycled. Boeing has installed storm water treatment systems at the Plant 2 site as well as North Boeing Field. The state-of-the-art system at Plant 2 will treat an estimated 84 million gallons annually, cleaning the storm water before releasing it into the Duwamish Waterway. Boeing is restoring more than 3,000 of natural shoreline and has created 5 acres of intertidal wetlands and wildlife habitat. Once completed, it will represent the largest restoration project of its kind on the Waterway.
King5 TV recently reported on the Plant 2 restoration project. The video of their report includes fantastic fly-over and on-the-ground shots of the project.