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From Macklemore To Chief Seattle's Descendent, Many Are Eager For Duwamish River Cleanup

SEATTLE -- Macklemore rolls up in his signature old black Cadillac, sporting black Ray-Bans and big boots.

He’s late. “Google took us on a bit of a joy ride this morning,” explains the rapper (real name: Ben Haggerty).

But fortunately, Seattle’s beloved star hasn't left concert-goers in a lurch. He's not here to perform. He’s come to this heavily industrial and polluted part of South Seattle to go for a paddle on the river he’s made his cause celebre: the Duwamish.

“Industry has come in here and made this water crazy levels of toxicity,” Macklemore said, before dragging his kayak down the rocky beach. “And it’s pushed away, it’s not talked about much and I wanted to get involved in any way that I could.”

Macklemore picked a good time to wade into this issue during that appearance last month. The Environmental Protection Agency, after years of study, planning, and haggling with industry and community groups, is set to release a final "Record of Decision" on the Superfund cleanup plan for Seattle’s dirtiest waterway.

The plan is expected to be announced within the next two weeks. first draft of the plan, released last year, received 2,000 public comments. The majority of the commenters called on the EPA to require more from Boeing, King County, the Port of Seattle and other industrial landowners who will be responsible for the cleanup.

Macklemore may be the newest celebrity to walk the banks of this river, but today he’s greeted by an old-school Duwamish River VIP. Ken Workman, member of the Duwamish Tribal Council, whose longhouse stands just across the road from this rocky beach, welcomes Macklemore in Lushootseed, the language of his tribe. Workman is the great, great, great, great grandson of Chief Seattle.

“Or in English, welcome to the ‘hood,” he said to Macklemore, chuckling.

Local community members and environmental justice advocates have said Macklemore’s star power was a welcome boost to their efforts to pressure the EPA into exacting more expansive, and expensive, cleanup requirements from the potentially responsible parties. The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, an environmental justice group, has been pushing for more dredging of toxic sediment from the bottom of the river.

“What we are concerned about is whether or not [the EPA’s final plan] is going to protect the people who live here,” said BJ Cummings, policy advisor for the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition.

The coalition has pushed the EPA to require almost 20 percent more of the river bottom be dredged than the agency had recommended in its draft plan. The EPA’s final rule is expected to require more dredging and cost industry more.

Boeing, the Port of Seattle, King County, and the City of Seattle are largest parties on the hook for the Duwamish River cleanup. Their representatives have said more money and more dredging doesn’t necessarily guarantee a cleaner river. But that hasn’t stopped the “potentially responsible parties,” as they refer to themselves, from getting a jump on the most polluted parts of the Superfund site. The parties have focused their energy on five sites for early action cleanup under the supervision of the EPA, spending $190 million.

“We knew they were the most contaminated sites and we knew they would need to be cleaned up,” said Stephanie Jones-Stebbins, environmental program director with the Port of Seattle, on a recent boat ride on the Duwamish. She points out Terminal 117, the site of an old asphalt production facility that is owned by the Port. 13,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment have been removed from this stretch of the river, “We’re hoping on that particular site, we are done,” Jones-Stebbins said.

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B-17 bombers were mass-produced at the Boeing Plant 2 facility during WWII. The building has now been replaced with wetlands. Credit: Boeing.

Boeing's Brian Anderson has been overseeing the ecological recovery at the former site of Boeing's Plant 2 facility, pictured behind him. Credit: Ashley Ahearn.

Across the river from Terminal 117 is the former site of a Boeing plant. During World War II the company churned out B-17 bombers known as Flying Fortresses here. The Duwamish River paid the price. Now, after 2 years of dredging and the removal of more than 100,000 cubic yards of sediment, Boeing’s Brian Anderson says the site looks nothing like its former self.

The potentially responsible parties say that the early action cleanups have reduced PCB contamination in the river by half. They don’t believe they should have to pay any more than the $305 million plan the EPA had initially proposed, which would have made the river 90% cleaner than it is now. “The technology doesn’t exist to do more,” said Stephanie Jones-Stebbins.

“We do think that a cleanup that’s significantly more expensive is harder to implement,” she added. “There are many parties that have to agree to take part in this.”

After Macklemore had left the beach for his kayaking tour of the Duwamish, Ken Workman of the Duwamish Tribe, gazed out over the river.

Workman recalled growing up on the Duwamish and being told never to eat the flounder or sole with the brown spots in their flesh.

“The first thing you learned as a child is don’t eat that, those are cancer spots,” he said. “For decades nothing was done. So the fact that there are groups today working to clean this up, this is a wonderful thing.”

When the EPA released its draft plan the agency said there can be no guarantee that it will ever be safe for people to regularly consume the resident fish caught in the Duwamish River. That’s due, in part, to ongoing urban pollution from stormwater runoff that brings motor oil, lawn chemicals, sewage overflows and other contaminants into this river from the miles of paved surfaces and thousands of homes and businesses in the surrounding watershed.

But environmental groups contend that Boeing, the Port of Seattle, King County and the City of Seattle, along with the other industrial property owners along the Duwamish are responsible for the legacy of pollution here and need to be held accountable.

The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition said immigrant community members don’t know to avoid the contaminated fish they might catch in this river, and that it’s possible to conduct a cleanup that makes it safer for everyone to recreate on this river, perhaps even eat what they catch here.

For Ken Workman, no matter what the EPA final decision on the Duwamish cleanup requires of industry, the definition of success can’t be measured by dollars spent or cubic yards dredged from his river. He says being able to safely catch a fish in the Duwamish and cook it at the tribal longhouse across the street from the river represents cultural revival.

“That’s taking us back to our ancestors. That’s saying we haven’t forgotten you,” he said. “I think the Duwamish will take care of itself, with help. It’s suffered a lot in the last little while, the last century really, but that’s just a blink of an eye. It’s nothing.”

Correction: November 24, 2014. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Ken Workman's role with the Duwamish Tribe and gave an incorrect figure for the amount spent on early action cleanup. Workman is a member of the Duwamish Tribal Council; the amount spent on early action cleanup is $190 million.

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Macklemore, famous Seattle-based rap star, has adopted Seattle's Duwamish River superfund clean up as his cause celebre.
Ashley Ahearn /
Macklemore, famous Seattle-based rap star, has adopted Seattle's Duwamish River superfund clean up as his cause celebre.

Ashley Ahearn