Case Study in Environmental Justice – the Duwamish River

By Marlena Norwood

We cannot separate ourselves from the physical environment in which we live. The decisions made by environmental policymakers affect everyone in the community, and tend to affect the lives and health of disenfranchised populations disproportionately.


The Duwamish River in Seattle was put on the EPA’s most polluted list back in 2001, deeming it a “Superfund Site” in dire need of attention. The river has been polluted by many of Seattle’s industry giants: mainly the Port of Seattle, Boeing, and the City of Seattle, intentionally and unintentionally through toxic runoff, dumps, and spills.

According to Linn Gould, the director of Just Heath Action and a strong advocate for environmental justice, the pollution is so great that health advisories are posted, warning visitors to stay out of the water and to avoid eating its fish. The toxins in the fish can cause cancer, lower IQ levels, and development issues.

The EPA proposed a long-term plan to clean up the river. There are a few options, but the most effective method is also the most expensive. The EPA plans to go to great lengths to recover the most polluted ”hot spots” of the river. However, the less polluted areas will be recovered through a less expensive process–natural recovery–and its efficacy is uncertain.

Fishing is an important spiritual and cultural tradition for the Duwamish Tribe. Another group of people who live near the river are sustenance fishers. Both of these populations depend greatly on the river’s usability and sustainability. Unfortunately, the populations affected have less influence in decision making because they are generally lower income and voiceless in some settings. Even more concerning is that lower-income populations are disproportionately affected by health risks from toxins because of socioeconomic factors such as increased stress levels and decreased access to medical care.

river and trees

Is the EPA doing enough to clean up the river to protect the health and traditions of the Duwamish Valley community? How much should the pollution sources be regulated? In addition to the cleanup plan taking 17 years to complete, there could still be high levels of toxins because of the uncertainty around (1) the efficacy of natural recovery and (2) future regulatory measures to limit the continuing pollution.

These are the kinds of questions that the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group and Just Health Action are asking. The coalition is the main liaison between the EPA and the Duwamish Valley populations. Members of the coalition have been meeting with Duwamish Valley community members and making recommendations to the EPA on how to better the situation of the community and to further clean up the river and make it more sustainable in the long run, even though it may cost more. They teamed up with Just Health Action to submit a report containing recommendations to improve the EPA’s proposed plan.

Are your community’s rivers healthy? Do the rivers pose health threats to those who are dependent on them? Here’s what you can do to promote the sustainability of rivers near you: