What does the Duwamish River sound like? Water swirling. Herons croaking. Ships thrumming. James Rasmussen telling stories.

The waterway that runs past South Park, Georgetown and Sodo to Elliott Bay will lose a voice this summer when Rasmussen, after more than three decades working to revive the polluted stretch, retires and leaves Seattle.

The 66-year-old, a longtime Duwamish Tribal Council member and Duwamish River Community Coalition leader whose hard-nosed advocacy and understanding of Indigenous history have helped secure and watchdog crucial cleanup projects, recently sold the Beacon Hill house where he grew up and is moving to Las Vegas, where his daughter lives.

“It breaks my heart a little,” said B.J. Cummings, who founded the Coalition. “But we will continue to see his influence on the people who are going to carry on with the work.”

Rasmussen fished the river as a child, slipping onto the water with his father in the dark, just before sunrise. Industrialized starting in the early 1900s, the waterway was gritty by the 1960s. Still…

“Once, we hooked this big salmon. It was pulling us around the river,” he said. “Then it wrapped our line around the docks and was gone.”

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Descended from people who lived along the Black River, a tributary of the Duwamish River, Rasmussen learned from his grandfather and mother that the animals he saw while fishing were his relatives, he said.

“Because my family comes from here and they come from here,” he said.

Rasmussen wasn’t drawn only to restoration work. The Franklin High grad also was enchanted by jazz, studying trumpet at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. He started a Seattle band and ran a record store in Pioneer Square.

Yet the river always mattered, he said, telling of how the Duwamish Tribe stopped the Port of Seattle from paving over the lower waterway’s last sliver of original habitat. Tidal grasses hug that stretch now, preserved as həʔapus Village Park and Herring’s House Park in Delridge. Rasmussen helped get the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center built across the street.

“What this place used to be, it’s never going to be again,” Rasmussen said, nodding at the shipping cranes that stand where wetlands previously sprawled as June rain soaked his old Sonics jacket. “But how do we find that balance, where industries, communities and wildlife can thrive?”

Rasmussen plunged into environmental work in the 1980s and 1990s, alongside Cummings and local activist John Beal. They patrolled the river for polluters and led cleanup crews. People were using the water like a dump.

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“The river was literally full of scrap metal, cars, trucks,” Cummings said.

The river bottom was badly contaminated from industrial waste. Rasmussen became the Duwamish Tribe’s point person after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the waterway a Superfund site in 2001.

In that role and later as the Coalition’s executive director, he and other activists pushed the EPA and partners like the Port for more remediation and immediate cleanups, Cummings said. Though Rasmussen has no ecology degree, his connection to the water has made a difference.

“There’s no questioning that kind of authority,” Cummings added. “You could quibble with him about whether something was technically accurate, but he knew the river better than most of the scientists.”

The results? The EPA’s $342 million cleanup plan, published in 2014, included 25% more work than initially proposed. “Early actions” have already removed 50% of polychlorinated biphenyls, the most prevalent and toxic chemicals. Animals like otters have returned to the river.

Next month, a new green space called the Duwamish River People’s Park and Shoreline Habitat will open in South Park on cleaned-up property that the Port was going to retain for industrial use until Rasmussen and other activists objected, Port Commissioner Ryan Calkins pointed out.

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Today, Rasmussen believes there could be “more variety of wildlife in the Duwamish estuary than any other place in Seattle,” he said.

That success has been based on community power, he said, with the Coalition making sure that people who live and work near the river, many of whom are immigrants, are heard.

“When you have 150 people show up to a meeting in South Park … the EPA pays attention,” Rasmussen said.

Rasmussen knows when to use a gentle touch and when to stand tough, said Paulina López, the Coalition’s executive director. He mentored López, then stepped aside to serve as the Coalition’s Superfund manager and let her lead. Now the Coalition trains young people to advocate for environmental justice in their own neighborhoods, in line with Rasmussen’s advice for politicians from Seattle to Washington, D.C.

“Sit down, shut up and listen,” he said. “The people in the community know more about the problem than you do, and they have ideas.”

When Rasmussen and his sister decided it made sense to sell the house on Beacon Hill, he looked for a new home around here. Prices have soared.

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He searched in Seattle, “which was way overpriced,” then Tukwila, SeaTac, Burien and Renton before deciding to “start something new,” he said.

The Duwamish Tribe launched a new legal campaign last month to secure recognition from the U.S. government. Rasmussen’s cleanup quest has been essential, said Ken Workman, a Tribal Council member.

“The health of the Duwamish people is linked to the health of the river,” Workman said. “He’s been doing this for all of us.”

Rasmussen intends to stay in touch with the work, via Zoom. Salmon have yet to surge back in large numbers. That would be the ultimate success, he said, counting on the next generation. The Coalition is currently pressing the EPA to maintain cleanup standards by Harbor Island.

“The river is in a much better place than it was,” Rasmussen said. “But there’s so much more we can do.”

This coverage is partially underwritten by Microsoft Philanthropies. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.