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Originally published Wednesday, February 17, 2010 at 3:32 PM

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Guest columnist

State must move forward to clean up the Duwamish River

Seattle's only river, the Duwamish, is a federal Superfund whose cleanup threatens to be stalled, warns guest columnist Patty Foley. The river's cleanup is vital to the health of the city.

Special to The Times

THERE'S trouble brewing for the Duwamish River cleanup.

Seattle's only river flows through the South Seattle neighborhoods of Georgetown and South Park. The lower five-mile stretch was designated a Superfund site in 2001, meaning it's on the federal government's list of the most toxic places in the nation. The waters of the lower Duwamish contain unsafe levels of arsenic, PCBs, dioxins and even raw sewage.

I moved to Georgetown five years ago and was thrilled when a neighbor told me about river access at a park not too far from our home. The park is the only river access nearby and is well-utilized by neighborhood families. At first I loved going there, but now that I know more about the Duwamish, when I see kids and pets playing near the water, I worry about the long-term health consequences.

I speak from experience, as I grew up not too far from the Nyanza Chemical Waste Dump in Massachusetts, also a Superfund site. When I was a kid, we didn't know enough to worry about the contamination, but now I see the high rates of cancer and other diseases in the families I grew up with. I don't want the same fate for my new home and neighbors.

Toxic contamination, like that in parts of the Duwamish, is a problem we expect our government to do something about. And the federal and state governments have been working to clean up the lower Duwamish. However, now the state budget crisis is threatening to derail the state's work to prevent further contamination.

The state toxic cleanup fund has been emptied over the past two years — last year, $180 million was taken; this year, $81 million more was diverted — leaving the account almost empty and with no funds to continue this vital cleanup for the foreseeable future.

In addition to the depletion of cleanup funds, the Department of Ecology's budget cuts are just as insidious in undermining cleanup efforts. One set of cuts eliminates work to ensure that ongoing contamination does not continue to seep into the water. Other cuts hinder the Department's ability to enforce cleanup by polluters.

The cleanup of the Duwamish River is vitally important to the health of our city. For years, community groups, led by the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, have been working with the government to restore this polluted waterway to health in a way that works for the communities that surround it.

We must continue to make headway toward a healthy community, where instead of EPA hot spots, we have parks, habitat and open spaces. A place where new small businesses, redevelopment, and equitable housing builds our community's (and the city's) economy.

Cutting the programs working to clean up the river implies that status quo is "good enough." I don't think anyone who knows about the toxic mix lurking in our backyards would agree, especially when you think that the Duwamish leads directly to Puget Sound. Stopping now means we just have more work to do in the future.

The good news is that if the cleanup is done right, the Duwamish River could be a destination waterfront for tourism and industry, a significant contributor to our regional economy. Community projects started during and after the cleanup could be the of source of green, living-wage jobs.

As the state Legislature makes decisions around the state budget, I hope our representatives, especially Sen. Margarita Prentice, who chairs the Senate Ways & Means Committee, stand up for a healthy future for the Duwamish and the people who live around it.

Patty Foley is a small-business owner who lives and works in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle.

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