They call this part of the Duwamish River the Turning Basin, a bowl of placid water five miles from where the last of the river merges into the mud with Elliott Bay. It's up here in the basin that tugboats and barges have room to come about and point downriver again, ploughing back to the bay and to the sea beyond.
Red-wing blackbirds flit from cattails. Shore birds peck at the mud where crippled barges and derelict boats once laid moldering. People have come, hauled away the hulks, and gently nursed the shoreline back to some pale semblance of its natural state. Harbor seals, curious as cocker spaniels, peek around, then dip beneath the ripples in search of something to eat.
A few paddle strokes away, an inlet ebbs with greasy gray foam. Slimed tires and rusting metal jut from the mud. It's so toxic here that the tiny slip of water shows hot-zone red on pollution charts. It's only the beginning.
From here to the bay, the river is a 500-foot-wide Superfund site, cutting a permanent scar on eco-friendly Seattle's history of growth and prosperity.
Tens of millions will be invested in this five miles from the Turning Basin to the bay, and the final cost is anyone's guess. The pollution problems are so severe that few people think it will ever fully recover. When all is said and done, environmentalists can realistically hope to reclaim only a fraction of the waterway.
After the filling and diking began in response to a flood in 1906, the river's inconvenient natural curves were straightened, the basin was dredged to accommodate ships, and the fill was used to build Harbor Island in the middle of the old river's mouth. When the Lake Washington Ship Canal was opened, the Black River all but dried up; the White was diverted south to supply water to Tacoma. The last reaches of the Duwamish were forever altered.
In the other direction, toward its snowmelt source high in the Cascade Mountains, Seattle's only river reveals glimpses of its more pristine past.
The beauty of that past is what has inspired a score of government, environmental and community groups to plan to change the course of history once again. The goal: Scoop and scour the river clean at least as much as possible. Those involved dare to envision a river renaissance, where ecologically benign industry shares the waterfront with people-friendly parks and creature-friendly habitat, a design one county official calls a "fish-and-ships approach."
So it remains to be seen whether the good intentions will hold, and the river will emerge as more than a forgotten ditch hidden behind factories, unlisted on any tourist map.
"It is a ditch, but it's more full of life than any other ditch," says John Beal, a South Park activist who has worked for decades to clean up the river. "It's been a sewer, and it's going to continue to be a sewer. But there's a wonderful resource here if we pay attention to it. If we steward it and take care of it, it could be a lot like it used to be."
On a good day, John Beal will be here. The feisty activist's name and life have become nearly synonymous with this spot called Hamm Creek, and with its restoration.
In 1978, Beal, like the river, was a broken-down wreck. By age 28, the Vietnam vet had suffered three heart attacks, and doctors were telling him he had six months to live. He said to himself, "If I'm going to check out, I'm going to leave this place a little cleaner than it is now."
He adopted Hamm Creek because no one else would. Over 25 years, Beal rebuilt the stream into an ecological wonder sandwiched into Seattle's industrial core.
He brought plants, bugs and wildlife here. He loosed trout and salmon fry and watched them grow up, swim away and come home to spawn. Nowadays, when he strolls the vibrant habitat, he whistles, shrill and loud into the sky. A red-tail hawk often comes to the call. Beal nursed him back to health and named him Moses.
Even when the river was finally declared a Superfund site, in September 2001, Beal said he was apprehensive.
"I said, 'Thank God. Why has it taken so long?' It was a great fulfillment to know I hadn't been just screaming into the wilderness, that someone was listening. Then the next feeling was one of great fear: 'My God, they've got to do it right.' "
FOR A SNAPSHOT OF the debate over the Duwamish cleanup, paddle on, past the creosote-covered remains of docks that launched the boats of yesteryear.
Years ago, the now-defunct company used the Duwamish as a private dump: A thick, hardened flow of oily asphalt still oozes to the river like lava from a Hawaiian volcano.
The river sediment here is laden with PCBs polychlorinated biphenyls cancer-causing chemicals once used as coolants and lubricants. The dirt on shore is full of them, too.
The Port of Seattle acquired the land in an agreement to also clean it up. It's preparing an "early action" cleanup, one of seven planned as part of the Superfund project.
The Port wants to dig out the Malarkey asphalt flows and dredge the nearby river sediment. But it stopped short of offering to clean up the dirt on shore, which was capped with concrete several years ago.
"And this doesn't address the PCBs buried under the concrete," says B.J. Cummings, who coordinates the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition and is one of the full-time activists who work on behalf of the river.
The Port, like other agencies involved in the cleanup, says the watchdog groups are impatient and expect too much. The "hot spot" effort is only the first phase of cleanup, says Port spokesman Mick Schultz. "It doesn't in any way preclude additional cleanup activities later."
JUST DOWNRIVER FROM Malarkey, a colossal, olive-drab building crouches above the eastern bank.
When Kirk Thomson started his Boeing career here at Plant 2 in 1977, he was an eager 25-year-old, riding a bicycle from one end of the bustling factory to the other. Now pigeons roost in the rafters. Rooms where wings, fuselages and tailpieces were built are now piled with surplus office furniture.
Thomson has worked his way through Boeing to become director of environmental affairs. He's quick to admit many of Boeing's past environmental faults, and quick to defend its efforts to fix them. "We're committed to our fair share. We've got nothing to hide."
Boeing built Plant 2 in the heat of World War II. By 1944, the company was cranking out a B-17 every hour. Boeing didn't pay much attention to what it was spilling on the ground, or into the Duwamish. It was war time.
But now the muck outside the retired factory is the most PCB-polluted place on the Duwamish, the EPA says. Boeing would like to sell Plant 2 and see it razed to make way for shops, homes and businesses. But that won't happen with the whole thing on a PCB wasteland.
It sounds like role reversal, but Boeing has been accusing the EPA of holding back the cleanup.
"We're committed to doing what needs to be done to protect this river," Thomson says. "We feel we have a good plan to do it, and we're ready to go as soon as the light turns green."
But that's only half the story, the EPA says.
Boeing is proposing nothing more than a "partial solution" by not offering to clean up PCB contamination well to the south of the plant's shadow, said Anna Filutowski, an EPA official in charge of the Plant 2 cleanup.
"That wasn't acceptable to the EPA," she says. "Boeing drew an arbitrary line and said, 'We're responsible for this line and nothing more.' " The dispute has lasted nearly two years.
Boeing argues PCBs could not have migrated upriver, so other industry should be blamed for those areas, Thomson says, adding, "We've never committed to cleaning up everyone else's messes on this river."
ACROSS THE RIVER from Plant 2, a tiny cottage pokes up between rose bushes, above the river sludge.
Tim and Deborah McNeil recently bought this home to fix up as a guest house. The back yard ends at the riverbank.
To the McNeils, the Duwamish is such a treasure that they moved to South Park from Wallingford seven years ago. "There's just something about this area adjacent to the river it's like a houseboat," muses Tim McNeil. "It's a fascinating place."
South Park has always been a working-class and immigrant community. Whites make up about 39 percent of the population, followed by Latinos, Asians, blacks, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans.
Life expectancy for a South Park resident is about nine years less than other Seattleites. The odds of dying of heart disease, cancer and murder are higher here. No studies have ever directly linked the water or sediment of the Duwamish to specific ailments. But South Park residents aren't typically as charmed by the river as the McNeils.
A study done three years ago by Public Health Seattle & King County found that most people here think the Duwamish gives the neighborhood a "bad image." Some believe the river's smell might cause headaches, and they wonder "what the truth is" about it.
Even so, teaching people about the river's toxic potential has been a challenge. Kids in the neighborhood sometimes play in it. And lots of people, especially immigrants, frequently fish it.
When Marcia Henning, a state Department of Health worker, first tried to meet with people to warn about the risks of eating the Duwamish's flounder, perch, rockfish and crab, no one showed up.
"We knew they were out there, but how do you find them?" she wondered. She hooked up with elders in immigrant communities, and eventually people welcomed her messages, she says.
"I think we're doing the best we can . . . We can give them the information, and then we have to respect their own decisions whether they want to eat the fish or not."
FROM THE RIVERBANK in South Park, a lonely ledge beckons from the opposite shore.
This is where Seattle first used the river to build its industrial heart.
Cathy Hendrickson moved to Georgetown seven years ago because she found an affordable basement apartment that would allow her two mutts, Puppy and Sammi, and her black-and-white kitty, Cebu.
Almost immediately, she started feeling woozy, foggy-headed and weak. Both dogs died of liver cancer, a condition that would later claim Cebu, too.
Then in 2000, Hendrickson and her neighbors learned that a huge underground plume of toxic vinyl chloride and trichlorothylene had been leaching toward the Duwamish right under their homes. Four years later, the company that owned the mess, Philip Services, has filed for bankruptcy and is still wrangling about how to deal with the plume.
"I know I wouldn't even consider sticking a toe in the Duwamish River," Hendrickson says, "which is sad."
What is less understood, even by aware citizens like Hendrickson, is the danger from a seemingly omnipresent family of chemicals called phthalates, pronounced thalates. Used in plastics and a host of other common products including cosmetics, phthalates have been turning up in the river in significant quantities.
When it rains anywhere on First Hill, Beacon Hill and much of South and West Seattle, chances are good that the water and whatever oil, fertilizer or mystery chemicals are on the ground will drain into the Duwamish.
So far, no single product is so high in the chemicals that it can be called a culprit. But some watching the river cleanup shake their heads at the value of focusing on the river bottom without stronger "source control" of the runoff.
Even so, the people of Georgetown list the river low among their worries. They're more troubled by the lack of a supermarket, and by what they see as the city's indifference to their neighborhood.
"I don't think people think of Georgetown as part of the Duwamish, but sometimes I think they don't think of it as part of Seattle," Hendrickson laments, gazing across the river toward Mount Rainier from the lonesome dead end. "There needs to be industry, fine. But we need to have a river, too."
EVEN THOUGH HE chain-smokes filterless Camels, John Beal blames his fourth heart attack on watching last year as a county contractor began scooping out the river near a yawning concrete pipe called the Duwamish/Diagonal, which brings rainwater and dirty runoff from as far away as First Hill and Seward Park.
The sight of PCB-laden silt spilling from the dredger was too much for Beal to bear. "I was crying my eyes out," he says. "I couldn't watch it, it was just so stupid. I told them I wanted them to do three things: Slow down, slow down and slow down."
The county obliged and acknowledged that while it removed some 400 pounds of PCBs, about eight pounds spilled back into the river.
To find the Duwamish/Diagonal, paddle north from Georgetown toward Elliott Bay. Follow the din of machinery from scrap-metal yards and brave the dust clouds from towering cement plants. Imagine a salmon, running this gauntlet of iron, diesel engines and creosote pilings. Or a seal, ducking tug propellers in search of lunch.
No one would disagree that the county's removal of 66,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment has left the Duwamish cleaner than it was two years ago. The county also has vowed to clean up the spilled PCBs later.
But the watchdogs remain dissatisfied. A single pound of PCBs is enough to make hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish inedible, they point out.
It's a debate that won't likely go away.
Environmental groups complain the county still won't admit it's wrong to use a simple "clamshell" dredging bucket in the middle of a running river, instead of more environmentally friendly scooping devices.
"We have seen such careless science and technology put into this that we're concerned about what we're going to get out in the end," the cleanup coalition's B.J. Cummings says. "This is our money. This is our river. These are our communities that are exposed. We don't want to have to come back in 20 years and spend more money doing what we should have done right the first time."
Government officials repeatedly say they welcome scrutiny from the public groups. But they blanch at suggestions that they care more about their ledgers than the river.
"If we didn't care, we'd be doing exactly what the vast majority of people who polluted this river in the past did, which is nothing," says Don Theiler, King County's director of wastewater treatment, who promises a river fit for "fish and ships."
WEST OF THE MASSIVE Duwamish/Diagonal sits a little park known as Herring's House, named for an Indian longhouse village that once thrived here. James Rasmussen likes to come to this newly reclaimed habitat because it overlooks the last natural turn in the river, a reminder of things that were, and things that could be.
For 20 years, Rasmussen, a leader among the Duwamish Indians, has been leading efforts to save his people's river. Even as much as he likes this place, it pains him that when his tribe holds cultural events here, he has to keep children from walking on the muddy shore for fear they track home poison.
"The city grew up around us, and we learned to survive in this place," he says. "The landscape changed, but it's still home."
Rasmussen now runs Bud's Jazz Records in Pioneer Square. But his heart never strayed far from the river that shared its name with his tribe.
The Duwamish have been fighting for decades to gain federal tribal recognition. The closest they came was in 2001, when they were recognized for two days until the incoming Bush administration pulled the plug.
Even so, the tribe recently bought property along West Marginal Way to build a much-anticipated longhouse, a cultural center to celebrate the first people to call this valley home. The tribe has been a strong force in restoration efforts, and Rasmussen has been quick to fight the bureaucrats.
When Rasmussen looks out from Herring's House park toward Beacon Hill, he soaks in the vast expanse that was once his tribe's unspoiled view. He says he feels a calling that no white environmentalist, no government official, not even John Beal could ever claim.
"These salmon and critters here are my brothers and my cousins," he says. "I care about them that much. And our ancestors are still here. They see what's going on, and they hold you responsible.
"But my ancestors know that I'm trying."
Ian Ith is a Seattle Times staff writer. Tom Reese is a Times staff photographer.
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