Contamination and Eternal Time

Point Ruston development. Un-cleaned area in foreground, remediated area in background.

Point Ruston development. Un-cleaned area in foreground, remediated area in background.

Last week I wrote about my walks along Thea Foss Waterway. This week I walked the Tacoma waterfront along Ruston Way and the new .75 mile long Waterwalk promenade at the Point Ruston development. I’ve been thinking about the importance of considering the Ruston Way waterfront in the context of a continuous and coherent whole that extends from the Thea Foss Waterway to Pt. Defiance Park.

Varied Perspectives on Point Ruston Development
As I continue to gather feedback about the Ruston Way waterfront, it is clear that multiple sites along the waterway hold meaning and significance for visitors. In response to my ongoing survey question, “Do you have a favorite spot along the Ruston Way waterfront? Where? What makes it a favorite for you?” a number of respondents have identified the Point Ruston development as a favorite place. This mixed use development (construction still in progress) includes apartments, condominiums, and retail outlets like a movie theater and restaurants. Below are the reflections about this development from three community members:

“I really like the new section near the town of Ruston, because of the thoughtful integration of the resting spots, the art mosaics and the development of a new neighborhood. I like the family play area and access to what will, in the future, be housing as well as picnic spots and benches. I hope that this type of community feeling will remain as the area continues to grow. I like the idea of being able to walk from downtown to Owen beach becoming a reality. Parking near the Ruston area may be a problem in the future.”

“Running on Ruston Way is one of my most favorite activities. One favorite spot is the boat that is near the new Copperline apartments. It is where I usually turn around on my run. The walkway at that point juts out into the water and while standing next to the boat you have an amazing view of Rainier and Commencement Bay.”

One community member identified piers as a favorite place, and wrote reflections about the Point Ruston development in response to the question, “When I think of the Ruston Way waterfront I think . . . (share 3 words or phrases)”
Beautiful. How lucky I am to live near the water and have access to such a long stretch of waterfront to enjoy.
Disconnected. It seems in danger of being overdeveloped in a way that doesn’t reflect the community/culture/values of the community.
Concerned. I cannot believe that a movie theatre is being built ON THE WATERFRONT. The waterfront needs more Chinese Reconciliation Parks, playgrounds, places for people to interact or for kids to buy an ice cream cone. It should have a distinct personality, not mimic what can or should be found by the Tacoma Mall.”

While these representative responses speak to the importance visitors place on water views, public access, parks, resting spots, and playgrounds, I also note that the responses do not mention the history of environmental degradation and cleanup at the Point Ruston site.

Looking for the Invisible
During this week’s walk with a chemist and environmentalist, I was reminded of Alexandra Horowitz’s observation in On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, “ . . . each of my companions on these walks serves to do the selective enhancing for us, highlighting the parts of the world that they see but which we have either learned to ignore or do not even know we can see” (Horowitz, 2013, p. 14). On our walk, when we reached the Point Ruston development, my walking partner said, “I would probably not live here because I don’t like the style of the condos and because of what is invisible.”

No Access sign at Point Ruston marking the border of areas of the site that “have undergone permanent environmental clean up and those that have not.”

No Access sign at Point Ruston marking the border of areas of the site that “have undergone permanent environmental clean up and those that have not.”

The Point Ruston development is located on land formerly occupied by the ASARCO copper smelter and it is part of the Commencement Bay/Nearshore Tideflats Superfund Site. Air pollution from the smelter deposited arsenic, lead and other heavy metals over 1000 square miles. The contamination spans four counties (Pierce, Thurston, King and Kitsap) and includes land on Vashon, Maury and Fox Islands, Point Defiance Park and covers land that stretches from Tacoma north to Seattle and south to University Place, Steilacoom, and Dupont. Soil at the Point Ruston development, and at properties with the worst contamination within a one square mile area of the former smelter, have been remediated. Remediation often involves scraping off 1-3 feet of topsoil and adding new soil, or capping contaminated soil in place with cement structures like condominiums and parking garages.

A map of the vast range of the contamination (and the limited cleanup, given the extent of the pollution), and the challenge of determining clean up limits of arsenic and lead, reminds me of the short and long term consequences of slow violence on human and environmental health. In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Robert Nixon highlights the delayed effects of human actions, like polluting, and reminds us “industrial particulates and effluents live on in the environmental elements we inhabit and in our very bodies . . .” (p. 8). Awareness of slow violence is evident in responses from visitors to the Ruston Way waterfront. One visitor shared, “I wonder about the smelter and the lasting effects on the environment in that area.” I’m struck by the community member’s use of the phrase “that area.” “That area” includes not only the Point Ruston development but also 1000 square miles of contaminated soil. “That area” includes contaminated soil in Pt. Defiance Park which has higher concentrations of smelter plume contaminants, that are deeper in the soil than anticipated, which impacts planned park development. “That area” includes land, water, air, soil and rocks where fellow community members—humans, wildlife, plants—and I live.

Play equipment at Point Ruston. The Department of Ecology has defined action levels to limit contaminants for child play areas to 20 ppm arsenic and 250 ppm lead.

Play equipment at Point Ruston. The Department of Ecology has defined action levels to limit contaminants for child play areas to 20 ppm arsenic and 250 ppm lead.

Using Copper, Using Nature
As my walking partner and I explored Point Ruston, she remarked, “Copper is a really important metal. It is an excellent electrical conductor that is used extensively in copper wiring and electronics; even electric cars use more copper. Humans need copper to support our collective, and extensive, use of electricity.” This point made me think that we can all be viewed as participants in the ASARCO smelter story. Our dependence on electricity—and copper—is visible at the Point Ruston development (and beyond) in lighted buildings, buzzing power tools, and the twinkling lights of the Port, downtown Tacoma, and nearby Vashon Island. Copperline is the name of the apartments and condominiums at the site.

As humans, we can challenge ourselves to grapple with the tensions of using, not using, and abusing nature as we work to identify “a middle ground in which responsible use and non-use might attain some kind of balanced, sustainable relationship” (Cronon, 1995, p. 85).

(In)visible History
The historical and present contamination at the Point Ruston development is visible in signs posted about the EPA clean up, covered piles of dirt, and the scraped landscape. A small display of photos and ephemera in a building lobby invite reflection on the former use of the site as a copper smelter. I’ve wondered how visitors to the Point Ruston Waterwalk promenade might be supported to consider the environmental history of the site. How might the site “encourage people to see nature in the city—to make visible the nature that supports our everyday lives. Can we “renaturalize” tables, electricity, computers?” (Cronon, W. et al, 1995, p. 451).

ASARCO’s website does not mention the company’s almost 100 year engagement in Tacoma or the toxic legacy of the copper smelter. However, the Their Mines, Our Stories project works to engage invisible histories like this by documenting how people who live within the toxic legacy of ASARCO-impacted communities have worked to impact environmental policy reform, working conditions, and public health education.

Waterwalk tile mosaics at Point Ruston.

Waterwalk tile mosaics at Point Ruston.

As I consider the Point Ruston development in relation to the Commencement Bay/Nearshore Tideflats Superfund Site, I continue to ask myself what are the pros and cons of a mixed use development design that maximizes views and makes visible sea life and other Washington locations? A resident or visitor to the Point Ruston Waterwalk promenade can literally see the vast expanse of contaminated soil. As I walk on the promenade, at times I visualize a shadow of the former smelter smokestack extending across the site.


Eternal Present and Continuous Time
Jill Schneiderman is a geologist and Buddhist who advocates for mindfulness and ethical, wise-hearted action. She highlights the eternal present and the need to awaken human beings to violence that is difficult to see in the overlapping and continuous scales of time—historical time, geologic time, timelessness, and the present time. She powerfully articulates in Awake in the Anthropocene, “all over the Earth we have the repetition to infinity of the same phenomenon: creation — destruction — new creation. Events, moments, movements” (p. 94).

Some park visitors express awareness of the connections between mindfulness and ethical actions across time. One resident described the connection by honoring “those that came before” for their “forward thinking nature” in creating Tacoma’s park system.

“As you know, the parks we have here in Tacoma are amazing. I have been to many cities and I would without reservations say that Tacoma is one of the most blessed cities on earth. The forward thinking nature of those that came before is amazing.”

In The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature William Cronon notes that throughout time humans have told varied narratives about nature. One narrative defines nature as being wilderness or pastoral countryside, rather than nature being cities or industrial sites. Another narrative describes human actions that result in paradise lost or paradise regained.

Reading and walking this week have supported me to 1) grapple with the dilemma of mindful and ethical use, and non-use, of nature, and 2) see “wilderness” in parks, retail developments, and contaminated industrial sites. When considering mindful and ethical use, the Point Ruston development can be viewed as an example of responsible use of land that was abused; it can also be viewed as continuing the abuse in a long legacy of land rights conflicts. I see “wilderness” in the Point Ruston development, in its environmental history, and the expansive views it provides of water, mountains, and forest.

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

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Cronon, W. (1995). The trouble with wilderness; or, getting back to the wrong nature. In W. Cronon (Ed.) Uncommon ground: Toward reinventing nature. (pp. 69-90). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

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.

Cronon, W. et al. (1995). Toward a conclusion. In W. Cronon (Ed.) Uncommon ground: Toward reinventing nature. (pp. 447-459). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Schneiderman, J. S. (2012). Awake in the Anthropocene. Contemporary Buddhism, 13 (1).

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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One thought on “Contamination and Eternal Time

  1. Dear Amy
    Yes, again, I am thankful to you Amy for this opportunity to perceive many parallels and links between some of your insights and experiences here – on the other side of the planet. Macquarie University is built on orchard farm-land – the site, I understand was highly contaminated by DDT up to the 1960s. On a recent walk and talk with my Aboriginal colleague Fran Bodkin, she commented that she had noticed a particular native tree (Turpentine – Syncarpia glomulifera) was growing in these contaminated sites. Further – as these trees grow, other native species flourish beneath them.
    Through her trained eye, she is able to see beyond the extermination of the past and observe positive futures. Clearly this deep vision cannot condone deliberate damage and ‘slow violence’ being done – however its ‘loveful’ acceptance and quiet, relentless patience seem part of a greater universal thoughtfulness.
    Best wishes

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