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caption: Seattle Iron and Metal on Seattle's Duwamish River in November 2019. 
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Seattle Iron and Metal on Seattle's Duwamish River in November 2019.
Credit: KUOW Photo / John Ryan

In Seattle’s polluted valley, pandemic and particulates are twin threats

From a boat on the Duwamish River, it’s easy to see giant yellow excavators plucking crushed cars off the ground and swinging them toward an open-air shredder.

At Seattle Iron and Metal, mounds of shredded steel as big as apartment buildings loom above the river.

“It looks like something out of Mad Max," James Rasmussen told a group of visiting scientists on board the Admiral Pete in November.

The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition activist and former Duwamish Tribal Council member was serving as a tour guide for Superfund researchers learning about the polluted waterway and the businesses lining its banks.

After many decades of heavy industry, the last five miles of Seattle's only river is a Superfund site – a federal priority for hazardous-waste cleanup.

"That's an all-purpose grater," Rasmussen said as the tour boat putt-putted down the Duwamish. "You can put a school bus into that all-purpose grater. It’ll come out in little pieces.”

Residents have long complained that all the industry and freight traffic in the Duwamish Valley fouls their air and water – and endangers their health.

The Georgetown dust

“We sort of laugh at the Georgetown dust,” Georgetown resident Andrew Schiffer said. “Sometimes we guess what recycled material is being crunched up that day by the taste in the air.”

As the economy went into a pandemic-driven lockdown this spring, some types of air pollution in the Seattle area, including lung-irritating nitrogen oxides, lessened.

Others, like the fine particles that diesel engines, wood-burning stoves and metal shredders can puff out, have worsened.

“More people at home has meant more wood smoke from outdoor burning and from home heating,” Erik Saganic with the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency said.

Residents of the valley with some of the region's worst air pollution say lax regulation during a respiratory pandemic could worsen the threats that both viral and industrial particles pose to their lungs.

For the Duwamish Valley community, which has twice the poverty rate of Seattle and is mostly people of color, the top air concern is the tiny particulates known as PM 2.5 (particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns wide).

“In the neighborhoods of Georgetown and South Park, it has not decreased,” Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition director Paulina Lopez said in April. “We still have industry operating. We still have trucks going around the neighborhood.”

The Covid connection

People with underlying health conditions are at greater risk of getting a severe case of Covid-19. Chronic air pollution can worsen those chronic diseases.

How much worse can be hard to tease out, since communities with dirtier air often have lots of other problems, too.

Lopez said her community’s poor air and other inequities set it up to suffer more from coronavirus.

“Most of us don't have access to health care, health insurance,” she said. “But we do know that our community has very high asthma rates, and the studies that we have been seeing show that that's going to be the populations that are going to be most impacted.”

A preliminary study by Harvard University researchers backs her up.

The preprint study, which has not been peer-reviewed yet, found that a small increase in long-term exposure to particulates leads to a large increase in the Covid-19 death rate.

King County officials report that Hispanics, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the county are four times more likely to contract Covid-19 as whites. Blacks are twice as likely.

“This disease is actually exacerbating other inequities,” Matias Valenzuela with Public Health Seattle & King County said.

Physician and epidemiologist Joel Kaufman at the University of Washington cautioned that it’s still “early days” in understanding the spread of Covid-19.

“The science is going to get a lot better as time goes on,” said Kaufman, who studies the connections between disease and air pollution.

“In general, it's true that lower socioeconomic areas, areas of more poverty and more disadvantage have shorter life expectancy, higher rates of chronic diseases and higher rates of things like childhood asthma,” he said.

Kaufman was on a science advisory board of the Environmental Protection Agency until the Trump administration disbanded it in 2018.

Those scientists, as well as EPA staff scientists, found that a tighter federal standard for PM 2.5 would save thousands of lives.

“The development of chronic diseases, cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and so forth is associated with levels of PM 2.5 even below the current regulatory standard,” Kaufman said.

“Strengthened standards translate into improved public health,” Saganic said.

In April, the Environmental Protection Agency went against the scientists’ advice and declined to tighten the federal standard, last updated in 2006.

“The U.S. has made incredible strides in reducing particulate matter concentrations across the nation,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in a press release announcing the decision.

Laws on pause

The agency has put enforcement of environmental laws on pause during the pandemic.

Since day one of The Trump Administration, loosening regulations has been a priority.

In March, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration also announced it would be more flexible with businesses breaking air-pollution laws.

Though the governor’s stay-home order prevents regulators from doing site inspections, Washington Department of Ecology officials said they can enforce environmental regulations remotely.

“It is possible to Stay Home and Stay Healthy while also staying functional and protecting the environment,” Washington Department of Ecology director Laura Watson told environmental groups that had protested the agency’s “regulatory flexibility.”

“We're not against the industry,” Paulina Lopez said. “Obviously, they are part of our community. But we are concerned that with the new rollbacks that government agencies have, they are pretty much self-regulating right now.”

Dust in the wind

With recycling considered an essential industry, Seattle Iron and Metal is operating normally during the pandemic.

The company has also been under a court order since January 2019 to rein in its pollution under an agreement reached with the nonprofit Puget Soundkeeper.

Under that order, Seattle Iron and Metal began monitoring the air downwind of its operation for metals and toxic substances last summer. Yet it failed to install wind fences or enclose its 4,500-horsepower metal shredder last year as required.

Company officials did not respond to interview requests.

But they told South Park residents in February that they want to be good neighbors and that the delayed anti-dust measures are in the works.

Now, the firm is negotiating with Puget Soundkeeper over how soon it will control its dust and how much it will pay the community to make up for the delayed cleanup.

Duwamish Valley residents have been working to better understand and tame the various contaminants in their air.

To find out where the valley's worst pollution is landing, local ninth graders with the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps cooperated with the U.S. Forest Service to pluck samples of moss from neighborhood trees last year.

Moss doesn’t have roots, so it takes up nutrients – and pollution – straight from the air.

Forest Service researchers have been analyzing those samples for various heavy metals and hope to have results of that work this summer.

Troubled Bridge Over Dirty Water

An entirely unexpected pollution source for the valley arose in March: the failing West Seattle Bridge.

Since the emergency closure of the deteriorating bridge, drivers heading from West Seattle to the rest of the city detour through the Duwamish Valley.

Before the pandemic slowdown, the city’s busiest bridge carried 100,000 vehicles a day.

“With all the idling and the traffic and the trucks and everybody being rerouted, the air pollution problems that we already have are going to be compounded,” Georgetown’s Andrew Schiffer said.

Community groups have requested measures to improve safety for pedestrians and bikers and to keep commuter traffic off neighborhood streets in the valley.

Traffic patterns could be altered for years: At this point, city engineers don’t know whether repairing the bridge is even possible.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has promised the valley more bike lanes and other measures to help it cope with the detouring deluge but has not offered details yet.

She said details would come in a few weeks and that all options are on the table.