Environmental Health Issues

The Lower Duwamish Waterway Superfund Site

The Lower Duwamish Waterway Superfund Site is a five-mile stretch of the Duwamish River that flows into Elliott Bay. The river flows between the neighborhoods of Georgetown and South Park and through the industrial core of Seattle into Elliott Bay. The LDW has served as Seattle’s major industrial corridor since the early 1900s. This has caused the Waterway’s sediments (river bottom) to be contaminated with toxic chemicals from many sources, ranging from stormwater runoff, wastewater, and industrial practices. While environmental regulation and cleanup of older infrastructure, soils, sediments, and groundwater have helped reduce pollution sources, legacy contamination and ongoing sources continue to impact people and the environment. There are many chemical contaminants in LDW sediment, fish, and shellfish. The EPA declared the Lower Duwamish Waterway a “Superfund” site in 2001, meaning it was eligible for a special federal cleanup program due to the severity of its contamination. The EPA is responsible for administering the cleanup of sediments in the Waterway, and the Department of Ecology is responsible for controlling sources of pollution to the Waterway. The EPA held a public comment period for the EPA cleanup plan during the summer of  2013. Additional details can be found on the EPA Region 10 and Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition’s (DRCC) websites. The final cleanup plan has been released and more information can be found on the DRCC site and here.

Sewage Sludge Land Spreading (“biosolids”)

Few citizens know of the nationwide practice of land spreading municipal and industrial contaminated wastes on forest and farmlands, and selling it for residential garden uses. Green washed with names like “biosolids;” “soil amendments,” “compost,” and “organic fertilizer,” without divulging their contents, these sludges have degraded soils, air, water, wildlife, and human health, and property values.

The US population is approximately 314 million. Each person excretes about 90 lbs of excrement/year and 150 gal urine. Human wastes empty into sewers along with hundreds of hazardous and persistent pollutants discharged from residential, medical, business, and industrial drains.

About 17,000 U.S. publicly owned wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) exist, producing millions of dry tons of sludge annually.  WWTPs separate effluent from solids, concentrating most, but not all, pollutants and pathogens in the solids. Under the Clean Water Act, treatment is for the effluents that are meant for release into open water bodies. However, treatment is minimal. Sewage contaminants can include solvents, PCBs, dioxins, heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, fluoride, flame retardants, radioactive materials, nanoparticles, and fracking wastes, as well as disease-causing pathogens, including prions.

Recent research demonstrated that the wastewater treatment process contributes to the selective increase of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the occurrence of multi-drug resistant bacteria in aquatic environments.(1) The USEPA’s sampled typical sludges for 147 pollutants from 35 facilities across the nation, including WA State.(2) Priority pollutants and emerging chemicals of concern were found in every sample. Approximately 1000 new chemical compounds are added annually into the waste stream, which is increasingly becoming more complex. Some chemicals can be taken up by some foods. In January 2014, Whole Foods joined others from around the world refusing to grow or accept food grown in sludge. Land applied sewage solids may be the most pollutant-rich waste created in the 20th century. Yet, US regulations monitor and regulate only 9 metals and nitrogen in the sludges and, depending on their use, for a few pathogens. Pathogens deemed “dead” can multiply once in contact with soil.

The land spread sludge can wind up in groundwater, and in surface water bodies via stormwater runoff, and on the way able to contaminate what is in the stormwater pathway.

There are alternatives to handling this waste to that of releasing toxic effluents into water bodies and allowing the land-spread toxic sludges to seep into groundwater and run into surface water bodies.

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Understanding Toxics

The below resources were created by Dr. Steven Gilbert, Director and Founder of the Institute of Neurotoxicology and Neurological Disorders (INND), Seattle, Washington. INND is a non-profit (501(c)3 institute dedicated to research and education in neuroscience. Dr. Gilbert consults and lectures on issues related to toxicology, drug development, and bioethics. He is particularly interested in making toxicology and biomedical research accessible to the public and policymakers.