In Tacoma’s Commencement Bay, an attractive new park is about to become a testament to the power of creative reuse.

Across much of the last century, the haphazard dumping of industrial waste offshore created a 26-acre peninsula of toxic slag outside where the Asarco smelter once stood on the shoreline.

Although the smelter shut down more than three decades ago, that peninsula of lead- and arsenic-tainted waste material long remained a conspicuous artifact of Tacoma’s long run as a deeply polluted industry town.

That has changed. The slag peninsula will have an official rebirth July 6 as Dune Peninsula at Point Defiance Park — named, like the adjoining Frank Herbert Trail, in honor of Tacoma’s most famous native author and his epic novel. At a cost of $75 million paid in part by a $198 million Metro Parks bond issue in 2014 and about two years behind schedule, the park has been no small investment of public resources. But its creation is an accomplishment to be admired throughout Puget Sound.

Waste from Tacoma’s Asarco smelter dumped into Puget Sound for most of the 20th century created a 26-acre slag peninsula off the city’s shoreline. (Tom Aldrich)
Waste from Tacoma’s Asarco smelter dumped into Puget Sound for most of the 20th century created a 26-acre slag peninsula off the city’s shoreline. (Tom Aldrich)

The peninsula’s origin story illustrates a bygone generation’s notions of creative reuse and pollution. After a destructive 1914 winter storm, Tacoma boat owners who desired a breakwater in Commencement Bay gave the Asarco smelter’s owners a place to get rid of the heavy-metal byproducts of smelting copper. Beneath the smelter’s 571-foot smokestack, kettles of industrial waste were carted along rails to the peninsula’s edge, where it was dumped, still glowing, into Puget Sound.

The area that has been transformed into Tacoma’s Dune Peninsula at Point Defiance Park as it looked from 1934-1957. (Courtesy Metro Parks Tacoma)
The area that has been transformed into Tacoma’s Dune Peninsula at Point Defiance Park as it looked from 1934-1957. (Courtesy Metro Parks Tacoma)

After Asarco Tacoma’s 1985 shutdown, the peninsula’s use as a breakwater and parking lot for the Tacoma Yacht Club built atop it drastically underutilized this unique slice of urban geography. The peninsula allows waterfront vistas of Mount Rainier, Mount Baker and the Olympics, and sits next to the 760-acre old-growth forest of Point Defiance Park. But the smelter produced toxic lead and arsenic that required Superfund designation and a multicounty cleanup that is still going on 34 years later. The pollution fell densest at the smelter site and the adjoining slag peninsula.

Do you have something to say?

Share your opinion by sending a Letter to the Editor. Email letters@seattletimes.com and please include your full name, address and telephone number for verification only. Letters are limited to 200 words.

The visionary effort of rehabilitating the peninsula to host a safe 11-acre public park required moving more than 20,000 truckloads of dirt. Layers of capping material beneath the peninsula’s surface seal in the toxic materials that remain deeply underfoot. Tacoma’s Metro Parks department has labored meticulously to give the park a welcoming effect, creating an undulating landscape with a concert-ready public lawn, connected by a soaring footbridge 600 feet long to Point Defiance Park.

Dune Peninsula park is every bit the vision presented to Tacoma voters before the 2014 bond election that promised a fresh destination-quality landmark. It is an example for communities throughout Washington of how the legacy of one era can be reinvented as a resource for future ones.