The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition: A Small Nonprofit Makes a Difference Advocating for Environmental Health

When Peter Quenguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant, moved to Seattle’s South Park neighborhood, he didn’t know the river nearby had been designated by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2001 as one of the most contaminated sites in the nation and a federal Superfund site.

Peter Quenguyen

Peter Quenguyen (Courtesy DRCC)

Quenguyen, who works for SPARC, the South Park Area Redevelopment Committee, as a site coordinator and social worker for its senior program, attended one of many forums run by the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition/Technical Advisory Group, (DRCC) which works diligently to ensure the clean-up of the Duwamish river and protect the health and well-being of the South Park community.

The amazing, hard-working, dedicated staff of the DRCC

The amazing, hard-working, dedicated staff of the DRCC (from website)

Galvanized by the “can-do” attitude of the DRCC, Quenguyen jumped on the bandwagon and became a tireless advocate, working to bring services and improvements to South Park and serving as a liaison with other Vietnamese community members.

He repeatedly told city officials and the EPA about his concerns regarding the health effects of the polluted river, but found himself butting up against a huge brick wall. Luckily, he found a strong advocate in the DRCC, a powerful force in the South Park community since 2001, and the biggest health and social justice advocate for the residents and workers of the area.

“The DRCC built trust between communities and provided clear and accurate information to concerned residents,” Quenguyen said.  Staff at DRCC impressed Quenguyen and other Vietnamese residents by taking the time to get to know their community’s culture and traditions. This respect goes a long way when attempting to foster trust and broker alliances in a fairly diverse community.

Bill Pease, a longtime community activist, who works very closely with the DRCC, says it in a nutshell: “There is a lot of technical jargon that gets thrown around by the EPA, so we [DRCC board and staff] try to break it down into more understandable language. We also ensure that the South Park Neighborhood gets treated fairly and equitably when it comes to decisions about the clean up. This community is very small and not very affluent. As such, we feel that we have to shout louder in order to be heard over the voices that have the amplifier effect of power and money.”

South Park is noteworthy for several reasons: it is the only waterfront neighborhood situated on the Duwamish river, which happens to be the only river in Seattle, and the site of a large industrial area; South Park is home to Marra Farm, the city’s only working farm, which generates a ton of fresh, organic produce each year; and it consists of the city’s largest Latino population.

Duwamish River

Duwamish River (Courtesy DRCC)

Duwamish River

Duwamish River (Courtesy DRCC)

A little history: The name “Duwamish” is an anglicization of the word Dkhw’Duw’Absh, which is part of the Puget Sound Salish tribal language, called Lushootseed (don’t ask me how those words are pronounced). Dkhw’Duw’Absh means “The People of the Inside”, a part of the Duwamish tribe who come from the Elliot Bay area. At stake is an incredibly rich history and many different cultural traditions, which are all threatened by health disparities from the environmental impacts of a century of industrial use.

Boeing, factories, and many small businesses all have a part to play in the long history of pollution the South Park area. A great radio series (with transcripts) which aired few years ago, describes the many facets of life on the Duwamish river.

James Rasmussen, coordinator for DRCC, explained how the DRCC helps to bridge the divide between businesses and community members: “The river has been for the past hundred years a sacrifice zone, with sewage and industrial waste being dumped into it. Many businesses operated in their own little world and didn’t take the river and communities around them into consideration. They are starting to realize that they are part of the larger community and now can begin working with each other. We can have a clean river with thriving wildlife, communities, and businesses.”

According to Rasmussen, the DRCC has been a catalyst in getting some businesses to become more environmentally responsible and ultimately more successful. As a consequence, he says, “Employees, customers, and management feel better and the business becomes more successful at what it is doing.”

The needs of the South Park community illustrate just how important DRCC’s role is. Not only does DRCC conduct valuable public forums to educate the community and get feedback, it runs a number of successful programs focused on community building and empowerment, improving community health, and creating jobs for the clean-up efforts.

Duwamish River Festival Dancers

Duwamish River Festival Dancers

DRCC at South Park's Community Health Fair (Courtesy DRCC)

DRCC at South Park’s Community Health Fair (Courtesy DRCC)

Volunteers installing native plants at annual Duwamish Alive event (Photo credit: Paul Joseph Brown)

Volunteers installing native plants at annual Duwamish Alive event (Photo credit: Paul Joseph Brown)

International District's Project WILD Youth Group on a DRCC-hosted boat tour of the Duwamish River Superfund Site (Courtesy DRCC)

International District’s Project WILD Youth Group on a DRCC-hosted boat tour of the Duwamish River Superfund Site (Courtesy DRCC)

DRCC also collaborates with other agencies to study the public health impact that years of industrialization has had on the community.  A recently released UW study states that “compared to King County residents, people who live in the Duwamish Valley have a shorter life expectancy, higher mortality from lung cancer, more hospitalizations for children with asthma, higher rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.” These health impacts are potentially linked to exposure to a host of toxic chemicals found in fish, shellfish, and sediment in the river.

And with the EPA’s recent proposal to clean up the contaminated sites on the Duwamish River, the DRCC has been working nonstop, conducting one public forum after another, to present the strategy to the community and gather comments and feedback.

“The DRCC has become part of the community and has inspired us to look at the river as an amenity and not a liability. When we look at the river now we see the potential, not the pollution. The DRCC was one of the catalysts that started the revitalization of South Park, and to their credit, they are working hard to make sure that revitalization does not go hand in hand with gentrification,” said Bill Pease.

What you can do:

  1. Donate money and in-kind contributions (ie. supplies for public events).
  2. Schedule a presentation or tour.
  3. Volunteer for a cleanup activity or community event.
  4. Pick a service learning opportunity for a student.
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