Dozens of companies have been identified as potential Duwamish River polluters; eight are in negotiations on cleanup with NOAA.

Share story

THE Duwamish River is probably the hardest-working river in Washington. It has long supported industry, with Boeing building thousands of World War II airplanes on its shores. It has been dredged, channelized and, yes, heavily polluted along the way — it became a Superfund site in 2001.

But the Duwamish still supports salmon and steelhead, including endangered species, a testament to the tenacity of the fish and the river itself. If the fish and the river can persevere, then we owe it to them to deliver on the ambitious and collaborative plans for reversing the historic damage and making the Duwamish right.

To do that, we must recognize those property-owners who are living up to their responsibilities in cleaning up and restoring the Duwamish, and hold them up as the example that we expect others to follow. Their responsibility is all that stands between a severely damaged and struggling river and one that again can provide the natural values we seek from Northwest rivers — and be a river that Seattle and Washington can be proud of.

Will Stelle is administrator of the West Coast Region of   NOAA Fisheries.
Will Stelle is administrator of the West Coast Region of NOAA Fisheries.

Boeing, in cooperation with regulatory agencies, has taken the lead in taking on that important responsibility and setting a high bar for others. In 2011, Boeing demolished its Plant 2 facility on the Lower Duwamish, clearing the way for the largest cleanup and habitat restoration on the river so far. The company has since removed the equivalent of 4,000 railcars of contaminated sediment from nearly 1 mile of riverfront, and that is just the start.

Boeing estimates it has spent more than $150 million on the entire project, which includes additional activities, such as building demolition and sediment cleanup, and others under the Environmental Protection Agency’s oversight.

As part of its responsibilities, Boeing tested the commercial mulch it had planned to use in the cleanup and restoration and found that it contained low levels of contaminants, such as PCBs — one of the same contaminants targeted by the cleanup. Boeing then developed a new, clean mulch specifically for the project.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Restoration Center, the branch of NOAA dedicated to restoring vital habitat, on Friday will present Boeing with an “excellence in restoration” award for completing the largest single restoration project thus far on the Duwamish River.

The 5 acres of restored marsh and riparian habitat we have gained from Boeing’s Plant 2 restoration project may not sound large. However, on the industrialized Duwamish where 95 percent of the natural habitat is long gone, it provides invaluable refuge where juvenile salmon and steelhead can forage protected from currents and boat wakes.

It is exactly the kind of project that will help meet the goals of our recovery plans for endangered Puget Sound chinook salmon and will further help all other species, including endangered southern resident killer whales that rely on salmon for food.

Boeing realized that taking the lead on Duwamish cleanup would put the company in the spotlight and under the microscope as the community and others watched its progress and insisted on high standards for the restoration. NOAA has identified more than 40 potentially responsible parties on the Lower Duwamish and is in active discussions with eight of them.

Boeing realized that taking the lead on Duwamish cleanup would put the company in the spotlight and under the microscope as the community and others watched its progress and insisted on high standards for the restoration”

Given its visibility, Boeing realized it could not do the work in a vacuum and worked with community groups and tribes to earn their support.

For example, Boeing worked with the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe to provide tribal fishermen with convenient attachments so they could anchor their nets without disturbing the newly replanted habitat. Boeing has committed to continuing maintenance and care for the restored site for the next 30 years and providing funds that will ensure such stewardship continues into the future.

The company has also agreed to share its restoration expertise and lessons learned in a workshop that NOAA plans to promote restoration of urban estuaries in the Pacific Northwest.

Much more hard work remains on the Duwamish. But Boeing has stepped into the spotlight by going first. Let’s appreciate the high standard Boeing set for a river that so desperately needs it. And let’s urge other partners in the crucial Duwamish cleanup to demonstrate the same environmental commitment.