“No Katy, we don’t get in the water here.” Citizens for a Healthy Bay volunteer and Tacoma local, Katy still remembers her father’s words from when she was a child. Growing up, she fondly recalls exploring the South Sound with her father, a salmon fisherman. She loved swimming in the water and coming across different sea creatures; and of course, encountering pods of orcas was always a delightful and thrilling treat. But even as a young child, Katy understood that when her father turned the boat around the corner of Point Defiance and headed into Commencement Bay, playtime in the water was over. She not only recalls her father refusing to let her play in the water, but also how the water seemed barren, as if it were an underwater desert where she rarely saw sea life. “Whenever I would see orcas in the water, I’d be overcome by sadness because I knew if I wasn’t allowed to swim in the water, they shouldn’t swim in the water either.”
Katy, her husband Grant, and son Renn
Years later, Katy’s love for the water led her to work at a marina in Commencement Bay. Within months of working at the marina, she realized why so many people, many of whom didn’t live in the Tacoma area, wanted to moor their boats there. “I remember there was a lot of competition among boat owners who wanted to store their boats in Tacoma. Due to the amount of contamination in the water, nothing grew on the hulls of their boats which made their maintenance costs lower.”
Experiences like Katy’s are what, in part, helped spur the effort to reverse Tacoma and Commencement Bay’s toxic legacy. In the last 30 years, the City of Tacoma, local businesses and environmental organizations like Citizens for a Healthy Bay have worked to transform Commencement Bay back into a healthier and inhabitable body of water. What once was a dirty and unused bay is now an accessible space with paddle boarders and kayakers. Countless people swim off Owen Beach in Point Defiance Park and can enjoy spending time along the boardwalks of Ruston Way. If you’re lucky, you might sneak a peek at seals swimming along the shore or a pod of orcas further out. Katy now loves that she can take her son to play on the beaches and in the water at Point Defiance and along Ruston – something she couldn’t do as a child.
Thea Foss Waterway Cleanup Map (Courtesy of the City of Tacoma)
The Commencement Bay we know today is the product of a lot of people putting in a lot of hard work over the past 20 or so years. In 2002, the City of Tacoma developed a cleanup plan totaling $105 million for the Thea Foss Waterway, one of the nation’s first Superfund sites. Over the next four years, about 425,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments were dredged from the waterway, and four habitat restoration sites were constructed.
Additionally, Point Ruston has cleaned up over 2,400 properties that were severely contaminated by another Superfund site, the former Asarco Smelter, and worked to restore acres of estuarine and shallow marine habitat.
While our community has achieved stunning progress in the efforts to clean up our environment, there is still important work that needs to be done. A project Citizens for a Healthy Bay has long been involved in is the Occidental Chemical cleanup (OxyChem). The last remaining Superfund site, OxyChem is the product of decades of improper disposal of toxins that are actually stronger than drain cleaner and even dissolve rocks into jelly. If this pollution reaches the waterways, it will devastate the wildlife that inhabits Commencement Bay and Puget Sound.
Proposed LNG Tank under construction (March 5th, 2019)
Another major threat to our environment is the proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility in the Tacoma Tideflats, which presents multiple global, regional, and local environmental hazards in itself, is being built on top of migrated toxic chemicals from the OxyChem cleanup location. During a time when we need to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, we should not be building new fossil fuel infrastructure that locks us into its use for the next 40 years. That’s why CHB is working alongside partners like the Puyallup Tribe of Indians to encourage Tacoma City Council to reevaluate the environmental impacts of the proposed LNG facility.
As we look to our future, we must ask ourselves, “What does a thriving Tacoma look like?”
To us, it’s a Tacoma where contaminated sites are history, our waters are healthy and full of life, the air we breathe is clean, and everyone can afford healthy and happy lives. This is the Tacoma we are working towards. This is the future we want for ourselves, our children and our grandchildren.
This vital and urgent work to clean up and protect our environment and our communities, whether it’s putting in long hours to research the best processes for cleaning up toxic contamination, organizing the community to demand a cleaner Tacoma, or patrolling Commencement Bay to monitor and prevent further pollution, requires funding. Citizens for a Healthy Bay and the cleanup and preventative work we do is only possible because of the support from the community.
To continue Tacoma’s push for a cleaner, healthier community, consider making a financial contribution today.
Or if you’d like to stay on top of all the upcoming action opportunities to have your voice heard, join our Arising Issues email list here: https://www.healthybay.org/arising-issues-list/