Mostly to satisfy his own obsession, West Seattle sailor Neal Chism has made almost 90 trips down the Duwamish in 2-1/2 years, trying to rid its banks of debris.

Share story

THE GARBAGE man needs another tool.

He stands in a parking lot at the southern tip of Harbor Island, gazing at the muddy Duwamish River below. Even before shoving off to find the trashiest spots on our dirtiest waterway, Neal Chism already packs quite a load. He’s tucked five empty black trash bags into his waistband. On his chest he wears a personal flotation device. In one hand he holds a five-gallon bucket. In the other he’s wedged the day’s most important weapon: a pair of pincers attached to a shaft of wood — a homemade trash picker-upper.

But Chism has made this journey so often he can sense he’s missing something. He hovers in a square of sun for a minute, then pops the hatch on the white Rav4 he calls Snowball. He pulls out a red medical-waste container and carts it by the handle like it was a child’s lunch box.

“Almost forgot,” he says, rattling it with a grin. “For the syringes.”

Ten years into a massive federally directed cleanup effort on the Duwamish, it’s hard to ignore that progress has been made. Fresh grass and picnic tables sprout from waterfront parks. Ospreys are back, and their fish diets contain fewer pollutants. Boeing last year settled a long-fought suit with the federal government and agreed to create new wetlands. Contractors are ripping out a World War II-era warehouse that leached poisonous solvents where workers built B-17s.

But few perhaps know as intimately as Chism that saving this blighted stretch of freshwater will take perseverance. Few Seattleites see so up close the many ways we still abuse this soiled waterway.

In 2 ½ years, mostly to satisfy his own obsession, this West Seattle sailor has made almost 90 trips down the Duwamish, trying to rid its banks of debris. Every week or so he floats the river in a one-man cataraft, gathering plastic soda bottles, faded Barbie dolls, cigarette butts, old shoes, fishing line, bobbers, rubber ear plugs, candy wrappers, Styrofoam dinner boxes pockmarked by birds — and, of course, scores of used hypodermic needles.

“In baseball season, I find baseballs. In soccer season, I get soccer balls,” Chism says. “I find tennis balls all the time, because people throw them in for their dogs to chase.”

No one pays Chism to do this. He’s self-employed and has the time and relishes the sense of purpose, as well as the exercise. And between rowing sprints to avoid barge wakes, and the concentration needed to keep from tripping on rocks when scouring dirty beaches, Chism has become something of a Duwamish philosopher.

“The human race is in business to make stuff,” he says. “Well, the residue from our stuff and from our business . . . some of it winds up in the river.”

As battles rage over just what kind of future this river deserves, Chism’s travels reveal a fundamental truth: Cleanup isn’t something we’ll ever truly finish.

Down here, especially, it has to be a way of life.

CHISM STARTS off at midmorning, coaxing the blue pontoons into the water, giving up his story in short bursts. He spent 20 years in the city, all but one in West Seattle, and found his way to Harbor Island three years ago hunting for a place to moor his sailboat. The whole area was overrun with paper and garbage, so his marina adopted a small patch near Klickitat Way to clean up. Chism kept on going.

“I just got sick of looking at it,” he says. He crosses the placid water and scoops a floating hard hat and an old Budweiser can. Behind him two tugs push a barge upriver. “So I made a few grabby tools and started going farther and farther out.”

Over time he picked up the river’s story, too. The once-shallow, meandering Duwamish used to spill through fetid flats and reedy marshes, giving up fish, crab and clams to Indian tribes along the way. By early in the 20th century, we’d diked and straightened the waterway and begun scouring it to accommodate ships, and lining it with businesses, too, until just 2 percent of the original shoreline was left. We ripped out the grasses or buried them with fill. By the 1940s, business dumped cyanide, formaldehyde and other contaminants, and meat companies filled the water with livestock innards. Even in the early 1970s, raw sewage ran directly into the river. So little oxygen remained that fish suffocated in massive die-offs.

George Blomberg, an engineer with the Port of Seattle and a student of Duwamish history, put it bluntly: “The river didn’t have any lungs.”

One account, he noted, “said the Duwamish ran red because offal literally filled it with blood.”

Today the Duwamish corridor supports 100,000 jobs, including our massive shipping industry. But the river bottom is still contaminated. And each year 3 billion to 5 billion gallons of rainwater rushes across land filled with roads and machine shops, cement plants and fast-food joints. That water picks up another suite of poisonous chemicals. The oil and brake dust from cars, the plastic compounds in glues and lubricants, the banned polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) once used in coolants and solvents that are still found in the paint and caulk of old buildings — all of it spills into the river. As does an amazing assortment of trash.

Chism glides his boat into a mucky patch he calls “Seal Pup Beach” because a young furry mammal once followed him to shore. He hops out and wanders, boots slurping in the mud, and snaps up a Cheetos wrapper, mangled grocery bags, a lighter, sopping cardboard, a few Styrofoam peanuts and broken bits of hard plastic. He walks past a sunken tractor tire and grabs half a coconut shell. He shrugs. “I expected it to be much worse,” he says.

The most fascinating part of watching Chism is his utter acceptance of having to pick up the same spots over and over again. Every time he’s out he returns to old haunts. Almost always, new garbage has found its way back. He once even found a broken safe, filled with cheap jewelry and several passports. He called police. Yet Chism manages to seem almost upbeat. In part that’s because he feels he makes a difference. He’s done the back-of-the-napkin math. Chism, after all, is an engineer.

Most of Puget Sound’s trash eventually makes it out to sea, but it’s hard to clean up once it hits the Sound or the ocean. “So what you have to do, if you want to stop marine debris, you have to find a good, safe way to get it out of the rivers and off the beaches,” Chism says. “And I’ve found a way on the Duwamish.”

The Duwamish is the most densely inhabited river corridor in Puget Sound. By Chism’s calculation, if trash roughly corresponds to population, he figures he alone might help stop 5 percent of the trash that would otherwise get into the Sound. He knows the figure might be high, but at worst he’s still stopping “some significant portion.”

“The beaches look so much better than they used to around here,” he says in a rare moment of satisfaction.

Chism is the first to admit that many people and groups work hard to keep trash from the Duwamish. And he knows that among the multitude of things that ail his river, what he’s tackling is the easiest part. The costliest and most complicated tasks are still ahead, and they come with questions we haven’t yet fully answered:

What do we owe the Duwamish?

Is it even possible to return this massive ditch to something pristine?

If not, what do we tell the people who use it — particularly those relying on it for food?

THE THREE WOMEN were frank: They came to the Duwamish every day and filled plastic buckets with crab near the river’s mouth. Then they took it home to eat with their families.

“It confirmed all our worst fears,” Morgan Barry of Public Health Seattle and King County says of a recent survey of Duwamish fishing.

The river remains so polluted the state Department of Health has warning signs posted in eight languages. They urge people to avoid eating anything from the river except salmon, which are only short-term residents here. Salmon are safe, but shellfish and Dungeness crab, shiner surfperch, sculpin and English sole are loaded with cancer-causing PCBs.

Untold numbers of people catch and eat those fish anyway. But finding and warning them — not to mention counting them — has proved all but impossible. Health officials presume many of these anglers are immigrants. Some do it because they don’t know they shouldn’t, or because they can’t otherwise afford to feed their families. Some do it because they come from places where pollution is a fact of life. Some don’t understand the risk, don’t care or don’t trust government. It’s not clear how many tell the truth when asked what they’re catching. Some speak little or no English.

So activists last summer fanned out for two straight weeks to interview these anglers. Most admitted catching only salmon, but a few conceded they ate dangerous fish, too. One family said it regularly took buckets of perch. “It told us there was cause for concern, but that we really needed to know a lot more,” Barry says.

Here’s why: The Environmental Protection Agency is considering options to deal with the worst of the Duwamish’s contamination — 300 acres of toxic river bottom left over from the watershed’s century and a half of industry. The agency may scoop some mud with dredges or cover it up. Some it may leave for nature to take care of, as cleaner mud eventually washes down from the Green River.

The cheapest option could cost a quarter of a billion dollars. The most expensive: $1.3 billion. The bill would fall to Boeing, King County, the city and Port of Seattle and a consortium of other businesses not yet identified. Each option, it is believed with varying degrees of confidence and with different timetables, could reduce river contamination 90 percent. But that’s not enough so people could eat unlimited quantities of fish. And to some that is an unacceptable outcome.

“It’s a classic environmental-justice issue,” says BJ Cummings, former director of the Duwamish activist group that has for years pushed for a stronger cleanup. Not only do South Seattle’s poor neighborhoods of color already have more traffic and pollution, they also have the highest ratio of residents likely to fish for their food.

She wants the cleanup to include the Green River, from which dirt washes into the Duwamish bringing with it PCBs and toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), byproducts of burning coal, oil, gas and garbage known to cause birth defects in mice. Those river sediments will keep the Duwamish from ever being completely clean.

The EPA is not unsympathetic, but “we’re not sure what’s feasible,” says Allison Hiltner, who oversees the Duwamish cleanup for EPA. “We don’t really know what that would take” — or what it would cost.

She also points out that getting the Duwamish 90 percent cleaner puts it back on par with other urban parts of Puget Sound, such as Elliott Bay. And elsewhere in the country, it’s hard to find an industrial river that is getting much cleaner. “When you look at cleanups on the East Coast in places like the Hudson River,” she says, “they can’t even start to think about people eating the fish.”

Still, a decision isn’t expected until next year. And that won’t be the end, either.

CHISM MOVES on to another beach and strolls between pilings that ooze creosote. He picks up loose twine, more cigarette butts, another coconut shell and pours out a 2-liter plastic bottle filled with a mysterious muddy liquid.

Right now, the rainwater that drains into the 32 square miles around the river washes pollution right back in. The state Department of Ecology is looking for the sources of all that contamination. But the job gets complicated quickly.

The city of Seattle has done thousands of inspections. Some businesses are so small they technically aren’t required to have permits to discharge pollution. Some don’t even know they’re a source. The old Rainier Brewery building, for example, was found to have extraordinarily high levels of PCBs in an old coat of paint that has chipped and is washing into storm drains. Even though PCBs were banned in the 1970s, they were so common they remain everywhere.

“We’ve found something like 7,600 buildings constructed between 1950 and 1977, and there’s possibly that many more leaching PCBs onto the ground,” says Dan Cargill, with the Ecology Department.

It will be years before the state finds all these sources — longer still before it figures out how to control them. That’s one reason Puget Sound advocates year after year push for major plans to treat and manage stormwater. But figuring that out, too, will take time.

So Chism, like many others, does what he can, and uses every chance to talk up his hometown river.

Once, when visiting a nearby store, the guy behind the counter told Chism he, too, was an avid kayaker. Chism asked the man about his favorite spot on the Duwamish and got a blank stare. Chism shakes his head at the memory. “The guy works every day about 1,000 feet from the river and he didn’t even know it was there. If people know how great it could be down here,” he says, maybe folks from more than just South Seattle would keep trying to make it better.

But Chism shouldn’t underestimate the motivating power of enthusiasm, including his own.

Earlier that day as he’d stepped from his car on Harbor Island in his get-up, he’d started picking up detritus beneath the West Seattle Bridge. Two city transportation workers eyed him suspiciously until one finally asked, “What are you up to?”

“It’s my new career,” Chism joked, breaking the tension, before using his grabber to scoop up more debris. The men chatted briefly, then Chism moved on.

If Chism had looked back moments later, this is what he would have seen: A city worker, on his break, bending over to snag a loose scrap of trash.

Craig Welch is The Seattle Times environment reporter.