With a plan in hand to clean up the Duwamish River, the Environmental Protection Agency needs support from all quarters to bring the milestone task to fruition, writes guest columnist Dennis McLerran.

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EVER since humans settled in what is now Seattle, the Duwamish River has sustained the economies and cultures of the people along its shores. Over the past 160 years, industrial development along the river helped make Seattle a world-class city, but it also left a legacy of pollution. The resident fish and shellfish in the Duwamish are not safe to eat. Yet many people still eat the fish, and they still proudly call the river home.

This week, the Environmental Protection Agency, of which I’m regional administrator, announced a comprehensive plan to clean up the river. I ask Seattle’s business community, local governments, tribes and citizens to join me in heartily endorsing this plan.

The Duwamish is the lifeblood of Seattle and its health and vitality are at the heart of our cleanup plan. Recognizing the importance of this river, and the fact that it has become dangerously contaminated over the years, the Duwamish was listed as a Superfund site in 2001. This plan will improve the health of the river and reduce health risks to people who live, work and play there. It is a practical, achievable plan to remove or isolate contaminated sediment on the river bottom while preventing pollution from recontaminating the river.

A major cleanup of this kind requires collaboration and partnerships. EPA will implement this plan in partnership with the state Department of Ecology, tribal and local governments, and the community surrounding the Duwamish. Everyone plays an important role to achieve success.

A lot of work has already been done and some cleanup work is already complete: by the City of Seattle and the Port of Seattle at Slip 4 on the east side of the Lower Duwamish Waterway and Terminal 117 on the west waterway; and by King County at the South Norfolk Street and the Duwamish/Diagonal Avenue South combined sewer overflows.

Major projects are also under way by Boeing and the owners of the Jorgensen Forge site. Thanks to the good work of these public and private entities, 50 percent of the cleanup needed in the Duwamish will be completed in 2015.

The final plan calls for active cleanup of 177 acres of contaminated sediment while allowing 235 acres to recover by controlling and cleaning up pollution sources on land. We estimate seven years of active cleanup and another 10 years of monitoring and letting nature complete the work. By that time, at least 90 percent of the pollution in the river will be removed or capped. This is an exciting prospect for a river once considered to be the state’s most contaminated.

The Duwamish contributes pollution to Puget Sound, and cleanup will have far-reaching effects in improving the water quality of the Sound. The cleanup also dovetails with the recently announced plan from King County, the City of Seattle, the Bullitt Foundation, The Nature Conservancy and others to protect, restore and enhance the Green/Duwamish river corridor from the Cascade Crest to Elliott Bay.

With more than 2,000 comments on our draft plan, we made important changes, including a significant increase in dredging and a commitment to work with waterway users to ensure the cleanup is compatible with all uses where possible.

Despite the ambitious nature of the cleanup, we have heard from some that it doesn’t go far enough. They want the river clean enough for people to eat unlimited amounts of fish and shellfish. However, cleaning up the Duwamish to that level is not achievable in this urban environment and is not cost effective. Other people think our plan is too costly or unreasonable.

River cleanups in heavily industrialized areas like the Duwamish are complex and expensive. However, we believe this plan strikes the right balance. It recognizes the vision of its residents who want a safe and healthy place to live and work, as well as the importance of industrial uses of the river. Our plan is a reasoned way forward to a much healthier river that will support the region for years to come.