As a region surrounded by stunning natural beauty, local governments in Puget Sound have emphasized environmental protection. However, not all residents receive the same attention. Significant disparities are palpable in low-income and racial minority neighborhoods. As is the case in many metropolitan areas of the country, there are also sectors with high air, water, and soil pollution levels. This represents an enormous burden for communities of color and translates into endemic health problems and limited access to green spaces and even healthy nutrition options.
A clear example of the immense challenges caused by the unequal impact of pollution and environmental degradation is the reality experienced by the community of South Park, located approximately six miles south of downtown Seattle. It is located in the heart of the Duwamish Valley, the only river located within the city limits. This waterway passes between the South Park and Georgetown neighborhoods, crossing the industrial area of Seattle and Elliot Bay.
South Park is surrounded not only by commercial and industrial complexes but also by three busy highways, as well as the King County International Airport-Boeing Field. 39% of the inhabitants of South Park are of Hispanic origin, comparative to the 13% in all of Washington. The high concentration of Hispanic people is mainly due to discriminatory housing practices that have historically segregated this community.
The contrast in air quality and noise levels with other Puget Sound cities and neighborhoods is something visitors to South Park can feel almost as soon as they arrive. In other sectors, residents can enjoy clean air, silence, stunning views, and use the rivers without fear of pollutants. In South Park, the roar of aircraft turbines is constant, as is the noise of motors from vehicles of all sizes that travel on the freeways surrounding the neighborhood. Airborne pollution particles cause eye irritation almost immediately. The river landscape is limited to material transport barges, old cranes, and rusty docks. The river has such high toxic levels that it is prohibited, for example, for people to enter its waters or fish. Warnings have been published in numerous notices installed in different locations along the shore, and even on poles in the middle of the water.
Boundaries of South Park neighborhood in the city of Seattle
39% of South Park residents are of Hispanic origin. In the state of Washington, the percentage is 13%.
“Since I was little, I always knew that the river was polluted, and I couldn’t go into the river. I knew I couldn’t swim in the river. And I never knew why. I didn’t understand why. And as an adult, I learned that other communities could go into the water, have clean parks, and the air is not polluted. And little by a little as I grew up, I realized all the injustices we have here,” explains Ruby Vigo. She grew up in South Park and now coordinates the Duwamish River Community Coalition (DRCC), a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering this community to fight for a just, environmental future.
The last five miles before the Duwamish River empties into Bay was considered one of the country’s most polluted stretches of the river. Levels of toxins were so high within the sediments, water, and fish, that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared it a Superfund in 2001. Superfund is the designation given by the federal government to areas that contain harmful chemical residues that are not disposed of properly and need to be cleaned up, a task and burden that continues at South Park.
The Duwamish River channel was an important industrial corridor from the beginning of the 20th century. The rainwater that carried away fumes, wastewater, and toxic by-products from manufacturing activities such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and arsenic – carcinogenic substances for humans – settled at the bottom of the river, creating a constant danger for the health of the inhabitants of South Park.
“They saw the river as a dump for industrial waste… And South Park used to be a neighborhood where those who didn’t have much money came to live. And I don’t think it’s fair that this is what we have to live with. No, it’s not fair,” says Vigo.
A study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that South Park residents have an average life expectancy of eight years less than the rest of the inhabitants of the city of Seattle.
Ruby Vigo. Youth Division Coordinator Duwamish River Community Coalition.
Fish, shellfish, and other organisms in the river also contain high contaminants, making their consumption by humans highly hazardous. Two decades after its designation as a Superfund, it has been possible to extract about half of the chemicals from the sediment in this stretch of the Duwamish River. However, the process is slow, and it is still impossible to specify when it will end and if ultimately the community will be able to enjoy its waters and resources.
But the chemicals in the river are just one of the environmental issues plaguing South Park residents. Air pollution and noise caused by vehicular traffic on the three highways, and the constant traffic of airplanes both to the east at the King County Airport (where the Boeing factory is located) and to the south, at Sea-Tac are a threat to health. This is manifested in high rates of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases in the community.
For example, South Park’s hospitalization rate for severe childhood asthma is among the highest in King County. “I got involved because my two little sisters have asthma. Since South Park is polluted in the air, in the river, and everything, I was more concerned because I wanted to know what I could do,” says Kelcey Valdez, Social Outreach Coordinator for DRCC. Valdez joined the organization at age 13 and has continued to work to move the neighborhood forward. ”I feel very happy to be here with the community because being Latino, it is tough to make a change in your community because they think, ’Oh, they do nothing but come to steal jobs.’ We do not! We are making a difference in our community for the children, the parents, and ourselves,” adds Valdez.
Among the strongest scientific evidence illustrating the link between pollution and health consequences for Duwamish River Valley residents is a study funded in part by the Environmental Protection Agency, which found that South Park residents have an average life expectancy of eight years less than the rest of the inhabitants of the city of Seattle.
To bring awareness to the youth population, the DRCC offers several community programs, such as the Duwamish Valley Youth Division or the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps (DVYC). “We meet once a week and talk about what is happening in the community; they learn about climate change, the valley, its history, the river. And other weekends, we take action. We go into the community and do something. Today we are cleaning gardens and removing blackberry bushes and other invasive plants. On other days we collect garbage. We go to the river and clean the banks other days,” explains Vigo.
Credit: Duwamish River Clean Up Coalition. Community members during a river clean up
Today, the quantity and complexity of the problems caused by pollution in the area have ceased to be an obstacle. They have become an incentive for the group of young Hispanics fighting to end environmental disparities in Puget Sound.
“When I think of environmental justice, I think of [South Park’s] youth enjoying what other neighborhoods enjoy. There are no parks available at this time. One that should have opened months ago remains closed due to contaminated sediment. It is not safe for children to play in it. So that’s what I think of when I think of environmental justice: that everyone can enjoy their neighborhoods and a healthy environment,” concludes Vigo.