On September 13, 2001, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) adds Seattle's Duwamish Waterway to its National Priority List of polluted sites. As much as four feet of sediment at the mouth of the waterway is contaminated with volatile organic compounds, polychlorinated biphenyls, heavy metals, and other chemicals. The pollution is the result of discharges of industrial and municipal wastes since the area was developed for industrial use in the early 1900s. Under the federal Superfund law, National Priority List sites can be cleaned up at the expense of the responsible parties and the Superfund.
The Duwamish River originally meandered down its fertile valley and emptied through wetlands into Elliott Bay. The wetlands were filled with soil from Seattle's regrade and canal projects. Industries were established on the river to take advantage of its access to the sea.
Beginning in 1913, the meanders were straightened to allow deep water vessels to dock at industries and to control flooding. Lumber mills, canneries, and other manufacturing operations discharged their wastes into the fresh water that flowed to Puget Sound and the sea. Operations such as shipyards and the Boeing Company's manufacture of airplanes produced persistent waste streams including heavy metals and volatile organic compounds. Municipal sewage systems, which also received industrial wastes, contributed to the toxic brew. Laws did not begin to regulate these discharges until midway through the twentieth century.
In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act - The Superfund - (40 U.S.C. 9601 et seq.) to clean up polluted sites around the country. The Duwamish joined 48 other Superfund sites in Washington state including Seattle's Harbor Island, Tacoma's Commencement Bay, and the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Eastern Washington.