Contamination and Cleanup Continues

Kayakers and motorboat on the Thea Foss Waterway

Kayakers and motorboat on the Thea Foss Waterway

How can we keep long-term environmental consequences within our view and concern? How might we perceive layered invisibility?

This week I’ve walked along the Thea Foss Waterway multiple times. I’ve been thinking about the water and land that form Commencement Bay. Tacoma’s Ruston Way is only one segment of a much larger waterfront and waterway.

In 1983 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated 12 square miles of Tacoma water, shoreline and land as the Commencement Bay/Nearshore Tideflats Superfund Site. The Superfund site includes multiple environmentally degraded sites, including the former Asacro smelter site (Ruston, WA) and the Thea Foss Waterway (Tacoma, WA), two stretches of land and water that are connected to the Ruston Way waterfront.

Investigating on Foot

Boat, marina, and Murray Morgan Bridge on Thea Foss Waterway

Boat, marina, and Murray Morgan Bridge on Thea Foss Waterway

I walked the Thea Foss Waterway with a former student this week. As a part of my research I’ve been walking along the waterfront with colleagues, friends, students, and residents. Conversation flows seamlessly from sharing life news, to appreciating the place we live, to noting different features of Commencement Bay and the Ruston Way waterfront.

Walking with companions is one way to research and learn about the dynamic natural and cultural forces that shape an interactive landscape. I’m not the first person to use this methodology to better understand a place. For example, Alexandra Horowitz reports on her walks with 11 different experts (e.g., a dog, a toddler, an urban planner, an entomologist) in her book On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, highlighting how expertise shapes what we attend to in our environment. She describes the act of walking with experts and her learning in this way:

“I aimed to knock myself awake. I took that ‘walk around the block’—an ordinary activity engaged in by everyone nearly everyday—dozens of times with people who have distinctive, individual, expert ways of seeing the unattended, perceived ordinary elements I was missing. Together, we became investigators of the ordinary . . .” (p. 3).

Looking Down, Looking for Disturbance
Walking along the Thea Foss Waterway with my former student, who now works for the Department of Ecology, I experienced how expertise shapes how we view and describe the environment. The early morning walk started with my walking partner saying, “When I think of this area I think Superfund sites and contamination from industrial processes.” As we walked, we stopped along the public pathway to observe and talk about standing water, piles of dirt, cement, and stone, storm drains, and water accumulated in the gutters—water that will become urban runoff in the storm water system that dumps into Commencement Bay.

Standing water on ground at the edge of a new construction project on Thea Foss Waterway

Standing water on ground at the edge of a new construction project on Thea Foss Waterway


As we talked and observed, my walking partner wondered aloud: What has been disturbed? Where did this dirt or water come from? Is it contaminated? Has it been tested? Is the water turbid? Does the standing water go away at low tide (suggesting exchange with water in Thea Foss)? This walk with an ecologist and environmental educator taught me to look down at the water and land (rather than up at new buildings being constructed) and to look for signs of ground disturbance.


Dilution is the Solution to Pollution (Not)
A long and ongoing history of industrial production—mills, foundries, coal gasification plants, copper processing smelters, railroads, and chemical processing facilities—has left, and continues to leave, its mark on the land, shore, and waters of Commencement Bay. Years ago, as a chemistry student, I first heard the phrase, “The solution to pollution is dilution.” Meaning that large bodies of water (like Commencement Bay) can dilute toxic chemicals that are added to them. This kind of thinking was one factor that shaped how industrial waste streams were processed; over time, viewing dilution as a solution has resulted in extensive contamination of the water, sediment and land here in Tacoma as well as across the globe.

With large scale industrial processing and large urban populations, dilution to low levels of contamination is not possible. Many chemicals bind with sediment and settle into the waterway. Contaminated soil may be removed or it may be covered with mesh and rock, a hard paved surface, and/or buildings that serve to cap the contamination and reduce the possibility of soil disturbance. New building projects that involving moving soil, or drilling pilings into the ground, can potentially disturb existing waste that has settled or has been previously buried or capped.

Not Solved, but Ongoing
My walking partner summarized the Thea Foss Waterway cleanup progress in this way, “We have done well, and we continue to work on cleanup projects, but we are still polluting. Pollution is not solved, it will not be solved, and it is ongoing. In addition to the industrial waste, there are many more of us now and each of us are a part of the problem.”

With increasing awareness of green chemistry, the amount of industrial chemical waste generated is declining, and the focus within the chemical industry is shifting from treatment to prevention of waste generation (Boisvert, 2015). Since 1983 many federal, state, and community organizations and community members have worked together on cleanup of the Commencement Bay/Nearshore Tideflats Superfund Site. Some waterways, like the St. Paul Waterway in Tacoma, have been removed from the EPA national priorities list. Other sites, like the site of the former Asarco smelter (despite clean up and new development) remain on the EPA priority list because of arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals that remain in 1,000 square miles of surface soil, most of which has not been “cleaned.” Sediments in the Thea Foss Waterway have been remediated and capped and concentrations of pollutants in storm water entering the waterway are decreasing. However, pollutants from untraceable sources continue to enter the Thea Foss Waterway via the air, storm water, marinas, and ground water.

Twin 96-er’s: Storm drains that transport storm water runoff from Tacoma’s industrial Nalley Valley into the Thea Foss Waterway

Twin 96-er’s: Storm drains that transport storm water runoff from Tacoma’s industrial Nalley Valley into the Thea Foss Waterway

It is an ongoing process to evaluate and monitor persistent bioaccumulative toxins and to recommend actions to protect human health and the environment. Robert Nixon, author of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, eloquently writes about the dilemma of slow violence—violent acts, like releasing toxins into the environment—that are difficult for humans to perceive, “either because they are geographically remote, too vast or too minute in scale, or are played out across a time span that exceeds the instance of observation or even psychological life of the human observer” (Nixon, 2013, p. 15). Our collective focus on violence as instant acts like bombings, rather than delayed destruction like global climate change, obscure our view of the violence of human actions—like polluting—that occurs across vast expanses of time and space.

Awareness about Impacts
As I continue to gather feedback about the Ruston Way waterfront, it is clear that the impacts of pollution are of concern to residents who visit Tacoma’s waterways and waterfronts. Here is a selection of responses to my ongoing survey question, “When I am on Ruston Way I wonder about . . .”

“the ocean, our attempts at preserving it. Have we passed the point of no return?”

“the smelter and the lasting effects on the environment in that area”

“the health of the Sound”

“Do people with motorboats feel guilty about polluting the water? Is it clean enough for fish and other creatures to have a decent quality of life? Are we doing a good enough job being stewards of our environment?”

Paint peeling off of pilings in the Thea Foss Waterway

Paint peeling off of pilings in the Thea Foss Waterway

Walking and reading this week have supported me to think about how my own expertise in education, biochemistry, and public health has shaped how I view and think about the Thea Foss, Ruston Way, and Point Ruston waterways. I’m also thinking about the tension between celebrating the environmental cleanup that has occurred in Tacoma, while also engaging the dilemma that clean up is never complete and that pollution is ongoing. The concept of slow violence challenges me, and others, to stretch our realms of perception to expanses of time and space that are well beyond our life spans.



For more information about this research project read the Project Overview.

Warning sign on dock on Thea Foss Waterway

Warning sign on dock on Thea Foss Waterway

Boisvert, L. (Winter 2015). The greening of the chemical industry. Arches 42 (2), 19-21.

Horowitz, A. (2013). On looking: Eleven walks with expert eyes. New York: Scribner.

Nixon, R. (2013). Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Amy E. Ryken

Amy E. Ryken

Amy E. Ryken studies partnerships that foster connections between schools and community resources, such as museums and outdoor environments. She is particularly interested in a broad definition of learning that considers how people learn, in a wide range of settings and activities, over the life span.
Amy E. Ryken

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2 thoughts on “Contamination and Cleanup Continues

  1. Dear Amy
    Today I have been thinking about learning and about human-place interactions. Your writing about your experiences with the different people that have been walking with you and responding to your questions linked to a theme in my mind about the relationship between learning and being. When are learning and being inextricably linked – when do they flow together? Is it that we learn through mindful walking? Observing and processing using knowledge harvested through our senses. Forming and answering questions as we move – or stop to ponder? Holding some unanswered questions for future insights and confirmations of tentative hypotheses.

  2. Buon giorno Amy!
    Thank you for your efforts and beautiful way of connecting us with our environment. Tacoma is beautiful and alive!

    Your students gain perspectives from all angles, and also learn how to think and “see” through discovery. You are creative and ingenious in the way you help us think about our connections to our environment. I love this blog! Not that I am an expert of blogs, but this really helps me see different perspectives… and it will keep me thinking about how I view my environment. I will be thinking more about some responses to your blog while I am in training today on “Environmental Remediation Technologies.” It is a three day class and I hope to gain a few more tools for my tool box as a geologist too…

    Amy, you really do ROCK!
    a piu tardi – ciao,

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