March 4, 2012

Lower Duwamish Waterway health study to inform EPAs final cleanup plan for Superfund site

UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

A new project led by environmental health researchers in the UW School of Public Health will assess key health issues affecting people who use the Duwamish River or live nearby. UW is partnering with health assessors and community representatives from two nonprofit groups: Just Health Action and Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group.

A June 2009 aerial view of barges and warehouses on the Duwamish Waterway industrial district in Seattle.

Derrick Coetzee

A June 2009 aerial view of barges and warehouses on the Duwamish Waterway industrial district in Seattle.

Findings from the assessment will be provided to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to help inform their selection of a cleanup plan for the Lower Duwamish Waterway, which was designated a Superfund site in 2001. The health impact assessment will be the first of its kind to evaluate a Superfund site and may have far-reaching implications.

“How EPA’s cleanup plan will affect particular communities is not well understood,” said William Daniell, an environmental and occupational epidemiologist and associate professor in the UW School of Public Health.  “This study will help fill in some of the gaps.”

The assessment will look at health changes that may result from the proposed cleanup and will  recommend how to minimize health impacts, maximize health benefits, and reduce health disparities in the affected communities.

The Lower Duwamish Waterway Superfund site is a 5.5 mile stretch of the Duwamish River in South Seattle. Decades of industrial and urban waste have left high concentrations of more than 40 contaminants—particularly arsenic, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (cPAHs)—in the shoreline, sediments, fish, and adjacent neighborhoods. Many of these chemicals persist for a long time and have built up to unsafe levels in resident fish and shellfish. Nearby residents, Native American tribes, and subsistence fishing families are among those most affected by the pollution and pending cleanup plans.

A child from Seattle's South Park district playing on the beach at Duwamish Waterway Park.

In October 2010, a range of 13 cleanup methods and alternatives were proposed and varied in how much contamination will be removed from the river, buried under constructed caps, or left to recover naturally over time.

The final plan, which the EPA will release later this year, is controversial.

Substantial costs and time are involved.  The costs will be borne by the City of Seattle, King County, Port of Seattle, Boeing Company, and other riverside industries that are responsible for historic and ongoing pollution at the site. Cleanup of the river will take years to complete, and decades longer for natural flora, fish, and wildlife to fully recover. The plan chosen will have enormous impact on affected communities, and will likely involve residual contamination and continued health risks despite administrative controls like fish advisories and restrictions on river uses.

With the perception of a cleaned up river, more people may be attracted to the area, which has been dominated by industry for decades.

The EPA is completing more than a decade of investigations about environmental and health risks at the site. Previous health studies have been limited to assessing risk of cancer and other illnesses associated with seafood consumption and contact with contaminated sediment.

“The previous risk assessment is a small part of the whole puzzle,” said Daniell.

There are environmental and social determinants of health, including health disparities between the low-income and ethnically diverse neighborhoods and the rest of the city.  In addition to health risks from exposure to the Superfund site, people who live, work, and recreate in one of the most heavily trafficked areas of the city are exposed to air and noise pollution and soil contamination. Local residents also face a variety of other health risks, including poverty, crime, underserved public transit, limited neighborhood amenities and services, and food insecurity.

A sign by the Duwamish River, warning people not to eat crab, shellfish or crab from the Lower Duwamish Waterway. The warning is in English, Laotian, Russian, Hmong, Cambodian, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese.

WA Dept. of Health

A sign by the Duwamish River, warning people not to eat crab, shellfish or crab from the Lower Duwamish Waterway. The warning is in English, Laotian, Russian, Hmong, Cambodian, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese.

“Research shows these factors increase an individuals vulnerability to contamination,” said Linn Gould, the executive director of JHA. Gould has taught and worked with organizations and agencies since 2004 to reduce health inequities that result from social, political, economic and cultural factors.

Compared to others living  King County, more Duwamish Valley residents lack health insurance. They also  have a shorter life expectancy, higher mortality from lung cancer,  and higher hospitalization rates for asthma.

The new health impact assessment will focus on community-level health effects during and after cleanup that were not included in previous EPA studies. The assessment will include the nutritional and cultural impact of fish contamination on Native American tribes and other fishing communities, gentrification pressures on local businesses and neighborhoods, and opportunities for local economic stimulus and redevelopment.

The UW, Just Health Action and Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group researchers will also examine the short- and long-term health impacts of the proposed cleanup and administrative controls (for example,  fish advisories and other restrictions) on three  populations: residents of two predominantly low-income and minority communities adjacent to the river; Native American tribes who have cultural resources, treaty rights, or actively fish in the river; and immigrant and low-income subsistence fishers.

The researchers will collect new data about fishing behaviors of non-tribal subsistence fishers. They will examine whether the cleanup will affect health, positively or negatively,  in terms of residual contamination and the need to enforce administrative controls in perpetuity; continuing air and water pollution from other sources; gentrification and displacement of community members; economic revitalization; increased habitat and green space; and changes in dietary behavior or cultural fishing activities.

“We want to ensure the best cleanup and minimize any unintended consequences,” said BJ Cummings, community health projects manager for the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group., which serve
s as EPA’s Community Advisory Group for the Superfund cleanup.  Findings from the assessment and recommendations for mitigation measures will be provided to the EPA during public review of the proposed cleanup plan this fall.

The Duwamish Health Impact Assessment project is supported by a grant from the Health Impact Project, a collaboration of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The Pew Charitable Trusts.