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Originally published Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 3:16 PM

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Guest columnist

Time to commit to a wider approach to cleaning up the Duwamish River

Cleanup is ongoing at Seattle's Duwamish River. Guest columnists James Rasmussen and Richard Conlin write that more can be done to ensure the river, the center of a century of Seattle's industry, can be as clean as possible.

Special to The Times

SEATTLE'S Duwamish River is many things to many people — shipping corridor, industrial zone, salmon habitat, fishing spot, neighborhood beach, kayaking destination. Yet many Seattleites are still surprised to learn that a major river runs through the Emerald City.

The Duwamish played a key role in the settlement and development of the city of Seattle, providing the base for early shipping and industry, including the first Boeing Airplane factory, and a route for outlying farms to float their produce to the nascent Pike Place Market.

Today, the river is deeper and shorter, a result of changes needed to boost its shipping and industrial use. It is also highly polluted. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency named the Duwamish as one of the 1,000 most toxic waste sites in the country a decade ago. The designation put the river on the federal "Superfund" list, which requires it to be cleaned up.

Ten years in, EPA has released a menu of a dozen possible cleanup options. The list was prepared by several of the parties that are potentially responsible for the accumulated pollution that now sits in the mud at the river bottom. The city and Port of Seattle, King County, and Boeing have proposed an array of options using dredging (to remove contaminated mud), capping (to cover the mud with engineered rock and sand barriers), and "natural recovery" (which would allow new mud naturally transported from upriver to slowly bury the toxic material).

The problem with all the options presented is this: While all options can potentially reduce the risks by up to 90 percent, none would leave the river clean enough to ensure that people can fish freely with no risk to their health. The river is a tidal estuary supporting perch, rockfish, bottom fish, crab and other shellfish, all of which the state Department of Health considers too contaminated to eat.

But people do. On any given day, low-income, immigrant and tribal fishermen and their families can be found harvesting seafood from the river to put dinner on the table. The recent economic downturn has only increased the importance of this resource to cash-strapped families, and for many native and immigrant families, fishing plays an important cultural role in their communities.

Fortunately, there is a solution. The Superfund cleanup options do not address ongoing pollution from upriver — the "upper" Duwamish and Green River — which is cited as the main reason the cleanup options don't fully protect health. Along the lower Duwamish, Seattle is working hard to stem the flow of new pollution into the river, and King County is preparing to control its combined stormwater and sewer overflows. Tackling any upriver pollution sources needs to be part of the overall solution.

Rather than throwing our hands up and calling this task impossible, it's time to roll up our sleeves, invite our upriver neighbors to the table, and embrace both the need and the opportunity this problem presents. Urban bays across our region face similar challenges. A watershed-wide approach to protecting our fisheries — and our fishermen — can provide a model for the cleanup and restoration of the rest of Puget Sound.

No matter what cleanup plan we choose, there are a few points we should be able to agree on:

• We need to protect people's health, especially in our most vulnerable communities;

• Controlling any Green River pollution, should be part of the solution;

• Jobs generated by the cleanup should benefit local businesses and local workers.

We're already doing what needs to be done along the Seattle reach of the river. The technology to clean up urban and industrial pollution exists. Now it's just a question of whether we have the will.

We built Seattle on the banks of the Duwamish. It's time for Seattle to turn back to the river after a century of neglect and show it our gratitude.

James Rasmussen, left, is coordinator of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group. Richard Conlin is president of the Seattle City Council.

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