Photo courtesy of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition
Industrial contamination of the Duwamish Waterway.

Duwamish Waterway health study underway to inform EPA’s final cleanup plan for the Superfund site

The University of Washington School of Public Health is teaming up with the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition and Just Health Action to study health issues affecting people who live near or use the Duwamish River ahead of the EPA’s final cleanup plan expected later this year, according to a University of Washington press release.

The Duwamish Health Impact Assessment project is funded by a grant from the Health Impact Project, “a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts.”

BJ Cummings, community health projects manager for DRCC/Technical Advisory Group, is part of the study and explained the questions they hope to answer:

“What does it mean to have a cleanup that doesn’t actually help people who are fishing … and how can we minimize that lasting health impact, how can we maximize the health benefit available to the fishing community and how to reduce any health disparities for those communities … compared to surrounding communities?,” she said.

“We know that the plan itself will be controversial, but we are hoping to be able to make recommendations to the EPA,” Cummings added.

The Lower Duwamish Waterway was designated a Superfund site in 2001 and the EPA has been working with those responsible (including Boeing, King County, City of Seattle, Port of Seattle and others, collectively called the Lower Duwamish Waterway Group) for decades of pollution to formulate a cleanup plan over the past ten years.

Industrial and urban waste have left the waterway with “high concentrations of more than 40 contaminants – particularly arsenic, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (cPAHs) – in the shoreline, sediments, fish and the adjacent neighborhoods,” according to the press release.

The cleanup will be paid for by those responsible for the pollution, Cummings said, but there is still plenty of concern over the quality of the plan.

Here is how UW Public Health describes their concern:

The final plan, which the EPA will release later this year, is controversial.

Substantial costs and time are involved. The costs will be borne by the City of Seattle, King County, Port of Seattle, Boeing Company, and other riverside industries that are responsible for historic and ongoing pollution at the site. Cleanup of the river will take years to complete, and decades longer for natural flora, fish, and wildlife to fully recover. The plan chosen will have enormous impact on affected communities, and will likely involve residual contamination and continued health risks despite administrative controls like fish advisories and restrictions on river uses.

With the perception of a cleaned up river, more people may be attracted to the area, which has been dominated by industry for decades.

EPA is currently completing more than a decade of investigations about environmental and health risks at the site. Previous health studies have been limited to assessing risk of cancer and other illnesses associated with seafood consumption and contact with contaminated sediment.

The study will use qualitative and quantitative approaches to look beyond cancer and seafood-borne illness, including “environmental and social determinants of health” in their scope because “local residents also face a variety of other health risks, including poverty, crime, underserved public transit, limited neighborhood amenities and services and food insecurity.

“Research shows these (other health risks) increase an individual’s vulnerability to contamination.” Linn Gould, consultant with JHA, said in the press release.

The study will also look at “the nutritional and cultural impact of fish contamination on Tribes and other fishing communities, gentrification pressures on local businesses and neighborhoods, and opportunities for local economic stimulus and redevelopment.”

Cummings said three community groups will be interviewed and studied including people living near the river in South Park and Georgetown who interact with the waterway regularly, Tribes (including the Duwamish) who fish the river for salmon and hold the water and its inhabitants culturally significant, and low-income, primarily immigrant groups who subsist off the shellfish and fish living in the Duwamish. Cummings said those who eat the shellfish (“Bottom-dwellers that spend their whole lives in the polluted waters”) on a regular basis are at a very high risk of health problems.

“We want to ensure the best cleanup and minimize unintended consequences,” Cummings said.

Findings of the Duwamish Health Impact Assessment project will be presented to the EPA during public review of their proposed cleanup plan expected in fall of 2012.

To read up on cleanup options released by the Lower Duwamish Waterway Group in 2010, please check out the Herald's prior coverage.

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