From Industrial Wasteland to Luscious Greenery: The Pollution of Commencement Bay

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By Lorraine Kelly

Since 1841, Tacoma’s Commencement Bay has been home to many organisms, from barnacles to seagulls to grizzly bears. Despite being such an ecologically rich area of Puget Sound, Commencement Bay has been extremely polluted due Tacoma’s to the industrial boom.

According to the Washington Department of Ecology, the mass amount of pollution covers more than 1,000 square miles, running along North Tacoma to Ruston. Much of the Puget Sound waterfront has been declared a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Superfund, more formally known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, was established in 1980 following the public attention gained from various contamination incidents that caused concern for human health. The EPA declared that several areas of Commencement Bay were contaminated by hazardous waste in 1983. Superfund allows the EPA to clean up contaminated sites, and places responsibility on the contributing parties. As an EPA Superfund site, much of Commencement Bay has undergone heavy cleanup on behalf of the U.S. government over the last 34 years.

The Commencement Bay Superfund site consists primarily of South Tacoma Field, the Tacoma Landfill and Well 12A. According to the EPA, these sites all contain soil and groundwater contamination due to light-rail activities, the presence of metal workshops in the area and various railroad activities. These areas, particularly the Thea Foss Waterway, began cleanup in 1983.

Starting in the early 19th century, the Thea Foss Waterway was a major industrial hub, home to shipbuilders, chemical manufacturers and oil refining. It encompasses 12 square miles of shoreline and shallow waters. The EPA discovered the sediment to be polluted with phthalates, petroleum-based pollutants and various metals. The clean-up of the Thea Foss and Wheeler-Osgood waterways began in 1983, concluding in 2006.

The cleanup of Thea Foss and Wheeler-Osgood waterways was completed on behalf of the City of Tacoma and various private corporations. The historic cleanup, costing a grand total of $105 million, also included an extensive monitoring system extending throughout Commencement Bay.

This system, organized by the Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) as an extension of the EPA and the city of Tacoma, monitors invasive species, plants native vegetation and conducts water quality testing. The WCC employs many people between the ages of 18 and 25 through grants with Washington State University, acting as an entryway into a career of engineering, biology or environmental policy.

According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, many species such as sea otters and leatherback turtles have flourished since the cleanup began. Both marine animals had their habitats destroyed by this pollution, but with cleanup underway, their homes are being restored.

Following the cleanup of the Thea Foss and Wheeler-Osgood waterways, Washington agreed to participate in the Environmental Stewardship Project as ordained by the EPA. This stewardship required the city to monitor the Puyallup River Watershed, an offshoot of Puget Sound, after various violations of the Superfund occurred. As required by this stewardship project, the city of Tacoma has absorbed several other pollution sites throughout Washington and has led numerous cleanup projects.

In pursuit of a better world, the City of Tacoma has not only restored much of its own natural habitat, but also that of the incredible lifeforms found in our own backyards. The Tacoma waterfront has always been, and will continue to be, central to life on this coastline, but only if we continue to treat it with respect and kindness.

 

 

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