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caption: Duwamish River Community Coalition's Paulina Lopez and Duwamish Valley Youth Corp's Nico Peters at Duwamish River People's Park.
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Duwamish River Community Coalition's Paulina Lopez and Duwamish Valley Youth Corp's Nico Peters at Duwamish River People's Park.
Credit: Libby Denkmann | KUOW

Envisioning a cleaner Duwamish River in South Park

The Duwamish River is one of the most toxic hazardous waste sites in the country and communities around the river have long been affected by higher rates of asthma and a lower life expectancy than residents of other Seattle neighborhoods.

The Duwamish River People's Park and Shoreline Habitat is a model for what a less-polluted river might look.

There are two osprey living at the new Duwamish River People's Park in Seattle's South Park neighborhood. The birds just moved in and are nesting on a man-made tree snag meant to mimic their favorite hangout spots in the wild.

A few hundred feet away from the cozy osprey perch, the industrial nature of the Duwamish Valley looms large; tail fins of airplanes sit in a Boeing lot next to the rusted remains of a metal forge.

Surrounded by industry, flight paths and highways, this new park envisions what a clean Duwamish River might look like; a tidal marsh, nesting osprey, scurrying killdeer, and salmon runs.

The Duwamish River was designated an EPA Superfund site in 2001. Superfund sites are areas that are highly contaminated and a high priority for cleanup. When the EPA and the Port of Seattle began to plan a cleanup of this stretch of river in 2007, habitat restoration wasn't discussed. But, through a concerted community effort led by the Duwamish River Community Coalition, South Park residents pushed the Port of Seattle to go above EPA standards and provide river access, open space, and habitat for birds and fish.

caption: Tidal marsh at Duwamish River People's Park
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Tidal marsh at Duwamish River People's Park
Credit: Libby Denkmann | KUOW

Duwamish River Community Coalition Executive Director Paulina Lopez said that it was critical to engage the community in any effort to right historic inequalities affecting communities in the Duwamish River Valley.

"We need to bring people at the center of those decisions and to build capacity," Lopez said, "so the people themselves are making those changes."

The river still has high levels of PCBs, arsenic, and dioxins, but the new park gives some residents hope that a cleaner Duwamish River is possible. While King County says it is safe to swim in the lower Duwamish River under certain conditions, Nico Peters doesn't feel like he can go in the water.

"When I was a kid, I always wanted to swim in the Duwamish," said Peters, 17, who helped construct the park with the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps. "My hope is that, in the future, my kids will be able to swim in the river, because I never got that opportunity."