In late January, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a change to the cleanup plan for the Lower Duwamish River, one of the nation’s most polluted waterways which was declared a Superfund site in 2001. The proposal — which would allow for higher levels of certain pollutants to remain in the river sediment — generated frustration amongst community groups in South Seattle, who called for an extension of a public comment period on the change. Public comment now lasts until April 21.
At the center of the EPA’s proposal is a pollutant called benzo(a)pyrene (BaP), a carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (cPAH) that comes from burning coal and oil and is present in the sediment of the Duwamish River.
In 2017 — shortly before the inauguration of Donald Trump — the EPA released an update to its safety information regarding BaP, declaring that the potentially cancer-causing chemical is less dangerous than they originally thought. Thus, the agency proposes to allow about seven times their original estimate of the pollutant to remain in the sediment.
But not everyone agrees with the EPA’s assessment.
Tom Burbacher, a professor of environmental and occupational health services at the University of Washington, conducted an independent review of the 2017 reassessment of BaP and says he’s concerned about the weight of evidence in the document: the report relies on two studies of BaP that are both over 20 years old, according to Burbacher. That’s newer than the EPA’s former assessment of BaP (from 1987), but it’s also riskier.
“If I were on that committee, I would have asked them to hold off on revising this until we have more data,” Burbacher said.
Burbacher also mentioned that scientists have raised concern over the fact that the EPA uses the toxicity standard for BaP to assess other cPAHs present in the river.
The EPA estimates that the proposal will shave off about $1 million from a $342 million plan and require about five fewer acres of cleanup. Per EPA rules, responsible parties are required to foot the cleanup bill. For the Duwamish, this includes the Boeing Company, King County, the city of Seattle and the Port of Seattle.
Elly Hale, the Superfund project manager for the Lower Duwamish Waterway, emphasized that the change to the plan is small, considering the scope of the project and the other chemicals the EPA is focused on cleaning.
“Even if we don’t have to clean an area up because of cPAHs, it will probably still get cleaned up because of PCBs or because of arsenic or because of dioxins,” Hale said. She also mentioned that cleanup processes can be environmentally disruptive.
Still, members of the surrounding communities are frustrated that the EPA would consider scaling back the cleanup at all, given the pollution disproportionately impacts low income communities and communities of color. The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition publicly opposed the change on their Facebook page stating, “it will be wholly unfair and inequitable to trade a .33% cleanup cost reduction for increased human health risks.”
Georgetown resident Rosario-Maria Medina said the timing of the change, and the subsequent comment period, made it inaccessible for community members who are struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic.
“For the EPA to have a comment period, during a time when more people have been displaced and more people are experiencing homelessness, who are from [areas near the river], that is unacceptable,” Medina said.
Medina is a member of the Duwamish River Accountability Group, which has been doing on-the-ground outreach, hoping to connect with people who may not be tech savvy enough to attend online meetings about the proposal or submit a comment by email. In response to a request from DRAG, the EPA is now receiving hard copies of public comments by mail.
Christy Carley is a freelance journalist in Seattle and former English teacher in Spain. Find her on Twitter @christy_carley.
Read more of the Apr. 14-20, 2021 issue.