Tugboat captain Dave Stauffer used to reek of diesel.
“It’s just the smell of a boat,” Stauffer says. “Just like standing by a fire, you’re going to get some of that smoke on your clothes.”
Stauffer’s wife also grew used to the smell. “She’d say, ‘That’s the smell of money,’” he says.
The veteran captain no longer smells like fuel because the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency helped Island Tug and Barge buy cleaner engines that don’t emit such strong fumes.
Stauffer’s wife has also noticed. “Now she thinks I’m not making money because I don’t smell anymore,” he says.
Replacing old engines that work the industrial shoreline is part of a bigger effort to clean up the Duwamish River. But critics say it’s not happening fast enough, as people in the area have lower life expectancies than most elsewhere in Seattle.
Tracks of exhaust still train some tugboats, however. Diesel engines last 30 to 40 years, and they didn’t start being regulated until the mid-1990s, according to Landon Bosisio of Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.
“An engine could be sticking around from the time when it was unregulated,” Bosisio says.
Tugboats aren’t the only source of diesel pollution in the Duwamish River Valley. There are diesel-powered cranes, and bulldozers that move piles of raw materials onto barges. Their operators give Stauffer a wave as he passes by on the river.
“Hi George,” Stauffer calls out to a man on the shore.
Island Tug and Barge has been trying to convince those operators to work with the government and modernize their equipment.
“If you’re in partnership with folks that are driving change, then you have a say in it,” says Erik Ellefsen is a manager with the tugboat company. “That was our goal, is to be looked at more as more of a partner and not as someone who needs to be regulated and reformed.”
Despite the changes, the pollution still sticks to the air in the neighborhoods along the river.
Joel Kaufman of the University of Washington has studied the air pollution in the Duwamish River Valley.
Kaufman says air pollution here isn’t the worst in Seattle; it’s worse in downtown Seattle next to the freeway.
But pollution in neighborhoods like South Park affects people more, he says.
“The combination of environmental hazards and economic disadvantage combine to make the risks for things like cardiovascular disease and pulmonary disease worse than either one alone,” Kaufman says.
Those risk factors add up. A study by the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition and Just Health Action concluded that residents of South Park have a 13-year shorter lifespan than residents of Seattle’s tony Laurelhurst neighborhood.
Maria Cardenas, who lives in South Park, is concerned by those findings. “I can’t let my children go outside, because of the pollution. I’m scared,” she says. Her son interprets for her. “Sometimes, they bring the pollution indoors.”
Cardenas was among many who went recently to the South Park Community Center to learn how to build indoor air purifiers.
Aileen Gagney of the American Lung Association demonstrates how to assemble the purifier out of inexpensive parts: A 20x20 inch big box fan, a similarly-sized air filter with a “MERV” rating of 13, plastic feet to stabilize the fan and some metal brackets and screws to hold the filter against the fan.
“Change the filters every one to three months, depending on how dirty they get,”
Gagney says, pausing so her instructions can be translated into Spanish and Vietnamese.
Peter Quenguyen watches the assembly carefully.
“Our whole Vietnamese community is going in to this event today to build this air purifier,” Quenguyen says through an interpreter. “It’s really important for us to have good indoor air quality.”
At the end of the workshop, Quenguyen stands in a long line of South Park and Georgetown Residents to take home an air purifier of his very own.
“Thank you,” he calls out in English and Vietnamese.
WATCH: A University of Michigan scientist compares the effectiveness of an expensive air purifier to a homemade model.