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Originally published Sunday, September 29, 2013 at 4:04 PM

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Editorial: Cleaning the Duwamish to a reasonable standard

The Duwamish River cleanup has many implications for the landowners responsible for the work, including the Port of Seattle. The level must be to a standard that is achievable.

Seattle Times Editorial

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THE cleanup of the lower Duwamish River sediments, now under way, must be to a standard the people doing the work know they can achieve and sustain.

This issue is part of The Times’ editorial focus on the Port of Seattle not only because the Port is a participant. The whole Duwamish industrial area depends on the movement of goods, which involves the Port, and hundreds of landowners will be expected to pay for cleaning up the river.

The process has to work, because Seattle relies on its maritime and industrial lands for one-third of its business gross-revenue-tax and sales-tax revenue.

Before cleanup began, sediment in the final five miles of the Duwamish averaged 350 parts per billion of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). At that level, eating perch, flounder, sole, rockfish, crab, mussels or clams raises the risk of liver cancer.

Warnings are posted not to eat these fish, though some people, many of them residents of Georgetown or South Park or tribal members, still catch and eat them.

The city of Seattle, King County, the Port of Seattle and Boeing all own land there and are on the hook to pay for cleanup. They have proposed a cleanup standard of 30 parts per billion. Citing the state’s Model Toxics Control Act, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a much tougher standard of 2 parts per billion.

Currently, reaching 2 parts per billion is impossible, and EPA’s own proposal of work will not reach it. Two parts per billion is the cleanliness of sand in rural bays of Puget Sound. No work in the lower Duwamish alone can get the river bottom so clean, because sediments washing in from upriver range from 3 to 80 parts per billion of PCBs.

The EPA says upriver cleanup could lower the toxicity of sediments flowing downriver, and that 2 parts per billion might ultimately be possible. EPA’s worry is that if it relaxes the standard now, the possibility of a 99 percent clean river will be lost.

The worry among local jurisdictions is that if they commit to 2 parts per billion, which they cannot attain in this plan alone, they will be out of compliance. They will be sued by environmental groups and tribes, and they will lose. Also, hundreds of other industrial landowners are liable to share the cleanup cost.

Cleanup will go much faster if these owners agree to pay; but if the standard is impossible these owners will sue instead, delaying the cleanup. In that scenario, some industrial tenants will simply flee, taking jobs and tax revenue with them.

The EPA says, in essence, trust us. “Nobody is going to implement a water-quality standard in a way that shuts down the ability of business to go forward,” says EPA’s Region 10 administrator, Dennis McLerran.

The sentiment is right, but the people on the hook are not reassured.

Note that the dispute is mostly not about the work being proposed now. EPA’s plan of work would remove enough mud to fill the 76-story Columbia Center and ship it to disposal sites east of the Cascades.

The local plan would dredge four-fifths of that amount and use more in-river treatment. EPA’s plan costs $305 million and the local plan costs $285 million — a difference of 7 percent. On their own, each plan would eventually reach the same level of cleanliness.

The dispute is about the point at which legal liability ends. “We want to know that when we’re done, we’re done,” says Christie True, director of King County’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks. It is also about what is realistic. “We have to be honest with people with what we can accomplish,” True says. “This is their money, the ratepayers’ money.”

This is the more reasonable approach. The lower Duwamish has been an industrial river for 100 years. Set the goal for the final five miles at a doable 30 parts per billion, which amounts to a 91 percent cleanup, and get it done.

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