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Climate Justice and the Duwamish River

Our Philanthopic Services team spent a day on the river learning about the effects of pollution on people and the community


September 12, 2018

By Elizabeth List, Philanthropic Advisor

On one of the few smoke-free days this August, and just three days after Seattle’s orca J35 finally released the body of her calf, members of Seattle Foundation’s Philanthropic Services team went on a boat tour up the Duwamish River. Guided by Paulina Lopez, Community Engagement Manager of Duwamish River Clean up Coalition/TAG, and Chris Wilke, Executive Director of Puget Soundkeeper, the team was able to not only see the impact pollution has had on Seattle’s only river and its marine life, but also to hear firsthand how this has affected the men, women and children who live and work alongside it.Instructors explain the Duwamish history

Paulina Lopez moved to the Seattle area more than a decade ago. She wanted to raise her children in a neighborhood where they could hear Spanish, purchase Latin American products and live near a river, like she had growing up in Ecuador. Paulina fell in love with the South Park neighborhood, which had everything on her list, including waterfront properties along the Duwamish River.

Around that same time, the legacy of a century of industrial pollution, along with the discharge of sewer overflows and 200 storm drains, lead the EPA to declare the area a Superfund site, contaminated with over 40 chemicals above recommended levels for human health. The Duwamish River is a fishing ground and food source for locals, especially immigrant populations and tribal groups. Yet many are unaware of the toxicity of the fish, or are unable to lose this source of food or income. Families, like Paulina’s, live with the knowledge that their life expectancy is eight years shorter than the Seattle average because of where they live.

The Duwamish River corridor is a living example of research that shows low-income and communities of color are hit first and worst by climate changePhilanthropic Services team on the boat and its impacts. In Washington, 46 percent of all toxic sites are in areas mostly populated by people of color, while 56 percent are in largely low-income areas. These communities experience the harms of pollution and climate change, including extreme weather events, contaminated drinking water and waterways, poor air quality and more.

Ensuring that communities of color and low-income communities are leading and shaping efforts to reduce the disproportionate effects of climate change they experience is the focus of Seattle Foundation’s new Climate Justice Impact Strategy. A piece of that work is deepening our philanthropic team’s knowledge around climate justice, so we can share information and connections that help our philanthropic partners build out their giving strategies for environmental protection.

Our day on the river was both cautionary and inspiring. The river was lined with industrial sites for the entire trip, with a few homes tucked in between the cement. It was disheartening to witness young men casting their fishing lines into what we know as a highly polluted site, and to see young children running along the bank of one of our nations’ most toxic rivers. At the same time, it was incredibly inspiring to hear from Chris and Paulina about how their organizations have partnered over the years to make tremendous strides in Duwamish cleanup efforts. Puget Soundkeeper works to create policy, enforce pollution permits and educate citizens about best practices to reduce the impact of stormwater pollution. The community voice and advocacy from The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition is a critical component of their success. The EPA’s cleanup plan for the river has been finalized and is expected to be complete in 2037.

We are absolutely headed in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go and the river will always need protection. Chris and Paulina both emphasized the critical importance of broad community involvement. Whether you are a philanthropist, a community volunteer, or simply someone who wants to help, the Duwamish neighborhoods need your voice.

Here are some ways to get involved:
Join Puget Soundkeeper on a patrol tour of the Duwamish River
Write to your local elected officials to support the Duwamish River cleanup
Join the Duwamish Alive Coalition for a restoration event
Get to know the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition through its community engagement opportunities

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For Philanthropists

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Climate changeClimate justiceSustainable developmentEnvironment

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