The Duwamish River in Seattle, once a source of food, tradition, and culture for Indigenous people, now stands as one of the nation's most contaminated waterways. Over the years, toxic chemicals and pollutants have flowed into the river, making it a Superfund site in desperate need of restoration. Full-scale cleanup work is set to begin next year, but behind the scenes, a secret dispute is unfolding - one that involves some of the biggest stakeholders in the region, including Boeing, the city of Seattle, King County, and the Port of Seattle.
Historical Pollution and Boeing's Role
Boeing, a major aircraft manufacturer founded in Seattle, has a historical connection to the Duwamish River. In a candid 1950 magazine article produced by the company for its employees, Boeing openly referred to the river as "a natural collector for Boeing's fluid wastes." This acknowledgment sheds light on the extent of the pollution that has plagued the river.
Fast forward to today, and the Duwamish River remains severely contaminated. However, the real issue now is how to clean it up and, more importantly, who should bear the cost.
The Hidden Dispute
While negotiations to share the cleanup costs have been ongoing, they have remained largely hidden from the public eye, in line with the secrecy often associated with Superfund cleanup law. However, a lawsuit filed by the Port of Seattle in 2022 briefly lifted the veil on the staggering potential cost of the cleanup - over $1 billion, more than double any previous estimate.
This lawsuit brought to the surface a critical question: Who should pay for the environmental sins of the past? Boeing responded, expressing disappointment in the Port's refusal to pay its fair share and asserting their commitment to contributing "hundreds of millions of additional dollars" to the cleanup.
Concerns Over Transparency
Advocates and community representatives are understandably concerned about the lack of transparency in the cleanup process. Paulina López, the executive director of the Duwamish River Community Coalition, emphasized the dearth of information available to the public. An impasse over cost-sharing, they fear, could further delay the much-needed restoration of the river.
The Historical Significance and Environmental Impact
The Duwamish River has a rich history, once serving as a vital cultural and economic resource for Indigenous tribes. However, it was transformed into an industrial corridor, and now large health advisory signs line its banks, warning against consuming certain fish and even advising caution when coming into contact with the river mud.
Boeing's 1950 magazine article, unearthed during the lawsuit, reveals their efforts to address pollution, but as toxicologist Tracy Collier points out, knowledge about the persistence and toxicity of certain contaminants, like PCBs, was limited at the time. PCBs were not banned until the 1970s.
The Superfund Cleanup Process
The Superfund, established by Congress in 1980, was created to address the nation's legacy of toxic industrial waste. It's a process that can result in costly legal battles, which is something the Port, city, county, and Boeing initially sought to avoid. However, federal environmental regulators had specific requirements that led to the Duwamish River's inclusion on the national Superfund list.
What's Known and What's Unknown
What we know is that the cleanup has already cost a significant amount, with taxpayers shouldering a substantial portion of the bill. The Duwamish River cleanup is set to enter a complex phase involving in-water work, which can only take place during a short window each year to avoid interfering with fish migration.
What we don't know is the exact breakdown of costs and the details of the ongoing negotiations. The allocation report, compiled by an environmental lawyer, remains confidential, leaving the public in the dark about how the financial burden is being shared among the stakeholders.