Dune Peninsula at Tacoma's Point Defiance Park opens on July 6, 2019.

  • By Ruben Casas
  • Posted 6/14/2024
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 23007
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On July 6, 2019, Dune Peninsula at Point Defiance Park opens on the northwest Tacoma waterfront. Built on top of land formed by industrial waste called slag, Dune Peninsula adds 11 acres to 760-acre Point Defiance Park. This park within a park features walking and cycling paths, and offers expansive views of Commencement Bay, Vashon Island, the industrial port, and Mount Rainier. Environmental cleanup at the site remains a work in progress. 

Daunting Cleanup

In 2014, Tacoma voters approved a Park and Zoo bond that allowed MetroParks Tacoma to transform into a park a land formation in Commencement Bay that had emerged through years of slag buildup (slag is the industrial byproduct produced by smelters). The American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) had operated a copper smelter nearby for nearly 100 years, and preparing the site required a monumental effort. To get it ready, 400,000 cubic yards of material had to be removed, and a geotextile cap – an engineered fabric layer that does a variety of things, including filtration, reinforcement, and protection – needed to be installed. The Washington Department of Ecology and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversaw the project. Work is ongoing. In 2022, the Army Corps of Engineers completed shoreline repairs at the site; in 2024, the Environmental Protection Agency resumed that work.

Ground broke on the project in 2015. SiteWorkshop, a landscape architecture firm based in Seattle with an office in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, designed Dune Peninsula. SiteWorkshop worked to celebrate "the site’s industrial past and the region’s natural history" ("Dune Peninsula/Projects ..."). These two elements are in play throughout the site, reminding visitors that the landscapes we live, work, and play in are layered with history and meaning.

A Nod to Frank Herbert

The site is called Dune Peninsula at Point Defiance Park, and the path offered to move through it is the Frank Herbert Trail. These two names locate the site in a fictional though not necessarily untruthful narrative in which human-led efforts to mine and extract a natural resource lead to environmental degradation at a planetary scale. Frank Herbert’s Dune, published in 1965, tells a tale of conflict over melange or "spice," a resource found only on the planet Arrakis, home of the Fremen, and which is necessary for interplanetary travel. Powerful imperial conflicts play out on Arrakis in relation to the extraction and collection of the spice, and Arrakis and its people suffer for it.

These effects were well known to Herbert (1920-1986), who grew up in Tacoma at a time when the smelter on Commencement Bay was in operation. The Tacoma smelter operated from 1890 until 1986. By the time Herbert was born, its notorious smokestack –erected in 1917 and standing taller than any other stack in the world at 571 feet – had been belching heavy metal into the region’s air for years. Slag was poured into the Bay, contaminating the waterways. This contamination continues to impact the region. Unhealthy levels of arsenic are still present in soil in North Tacoma, Vashon Island, Federal Way, and Gig Harbor.

Touring the Peninsula

Visiting Dune Peninsula will put some of this history before you. Besides its name, various built forms remind the visitor he is standing on a former superfund site: a 35-ton replica slag pot like the one that would have been to transport slag into the bay greets visitors at the entrance to Dune Peninsula; concrete mounds of varying sizes populate the peninsula, representing the slag mounds that would have been common when the smelter was in operation; two large art installations, Alluvion by Adam Kuby and Little Makers by Nichole Rathburn, also call attention to both the industrial past and links to Herbert’s novel’s themes. Alluvion features rows of metal pipes of varying widths and heights that have been sliced and laid horizontally and vertically. These elements are arranged in neat rows in ascending/descending heights. The material and order of Kuby’s installation reminds visitors of the way industry can remake a landscape and its presence remain long after "clean up" has happened.

Rathburn’s Little Makers is also a sculptural piece, this one depicting infantile sandworms, the god-like lifeforms on Arrakis that swim through its sands, remaking the landscape in their own way. The sandworms of the installation at Dune Peninsula are only partly visible as most of their bodies are submerged into the land itself. In juxtaposition with Alluvion, Little Makers reminds visitors that landscapes are always being made and remanded, by both human and "natural" forces.

Other features of the park-within-a-park include a large lawn for sitting and picnicking or for watching live performances. There are stepped areas that lead people to higher elevations, where they can take in the views of Commencement Bay, the industrial port, and Mount Rainier. Various areas have been marked and kept separate as places of habitat restoration. All these features do the work of bringing the industrial past and natural history of this place into contact in the present.

A Work in Progress

Environmental work continues. In August 2023 the Environmental Protection Agency began work to repair a cap of five rocks on the Dune Peninsula shoreline to prevent the leaking of heavy metals into the Bay. The original cap was installed in 2000 but was damaged by storms and earthquakes. The repair work was completed by the Army Corps of Engineers using a barge.

That the original cap was damaged by storms and earthquakes reminds visitors that the peninsula is a dynamic environment, one which complicates our sense of what is natural and what is man-made. In fact, this park is entirely the product of human presence, action, and intervention. From the designated habitat restoration areas to the installation of slag mounds that appear throughout the park, this entire landscape stands as a reminder that the human-nature interface is perpetual and complex. To maintain the natural beauty of this place will require ongoing human intervention, though decidedly of a different kind than that which created the landmass in the first place.


“Dune Peninsula at Point Defiance Park - Metro Parks Tacoma,” Metro Parks Tacoma, April 22, 2024 (https://www.metroparkstacoma.org/place/dune-peninsula/); “Dune Peninsula|Projects|Site Workshop,” Site Workshop, n.d., (https://www.siteworkshop.net/dune-peninsula-tacoma); Emma Hamilton, “Shoreline at Dune Peninsula Park to Get Some Extra Protection - Metro Parks Tacoma,” Metro Parks Tacoma, August 15, 2023 (https://www.metroparkstacoma.org/shoreline-at-dune-peninsula-park-to-get-some-extra-protection/); “New Tacoma Park Emerges From Superfund Site,” Washington State Department of Ecology, n.d. (https://ecology.wa.gov/blog/july-2019/new-tacoma-park-emerges-from-superfund-site); “Tacoma Smelter - Washington State Department of Ecology,” n.d. (https://ecology.wa.gov/Spills-Cleanup/Contamination-cleanup/Cleanup-sites/Tacoma-smelter); Western Washington University for the WA Department of Ecology, “ASARCO Smelter: Tacoma’s Industrial Legacy,” ArcGIS StoryMaps, June 8, 2021 (https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/c1022ac0b1b146788460b88b4dab2dd7).

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