The Story Of The Historic Cleanup & Revitalization Of The Thea Foss Waterway, Tacoma’s Waterfront

October 5, 2023

This is Part 1 of a multi-part series on this story. Watch this entire documentary on one of the earliest and most effective waterway cleanups in North America.

“It was old industrial wasteland. It wasn’t just contaminated. It was dangerous,” Marv Coleman recounts while discussing the extensive history of the Thea Foss Waterway while gliding across clean water.

Once, this same waterway was listed on the first list of Superfund sites — the list of the US’s most hazardous waterways. It was near the top of a list.

The rise of the city of Tacoma, Washington, as a successful new node was historically unmistakable. Back then, Tacoma was deemed to be the strongest city in the Pacific Northwest, surpassing Seattle. Tacoma was the Northern Pacific Railroad’s Terminus, nicknamed the City of Destiny. Many believed that the damage to the waterways was necessary, if not essential  — collateral damage. “Smell those jobs!” Others believed it was simply another afterthought of industrialization.

“The waterway’s decline — as with too many industrial dumps in the ’70s and ’80s — was ‘an afterthought‘.”

The Thea Foss Waterway has been nursed back to life after becoming unfit and dead, after the booming economy and rapid growth of the city provided jobs. There was more wood milled there than anywhere else in the United States. The city’s rapid industrialization includes the production of chemicals, aluminum, and furniture.

In person, there is nothing better than a good tale. Marv’s recollections are colorful, much like what he says at the opening of the remarkable documentary:

“The whole story behind the Thea Foss cleanup and redevelopment is pretty profound.”

Marv, who is now retired, turns us back to the perilous historical path. He worked for many years as the Cleanup Project Manager for the Washington State Department of Ecology. He takes us on his own long journey, working alongside his colleagues, as seen in the amazing documentary. Their approach can be applied to other failing and damaged water systems around the world. The historic cleanup of the Thea Foss Waterway serves as a paradigm for removing and converting dangerous contaminants, and one of the most remarkable revitalizations in the country.

As we moved through the now-beautiful and safe water off the coast of Tacoma, Washington, he revealed the obstacles he and others faced, obstacles they worked to overcome through the years — not casting aside the project as too costly or insurmountable. The documentary discusses the difficulties that many people encountered and overcame over the years, such as Clare Petrich, without letting up on the deeply personal work that took “an incredibly long time.”

There were two camps overall, and not everyone was in favor of change. Certainly not the amount of time, painstaking attention to detail, and energy that Marv and so many others devoted to cleaning up the Thea Foss, which was thought to have the worst water quality in Washington State at the time.

Marv tells us it was the fourth-worst in the US. It was a contaminated community, a dilapidated community, and a crime-ridden community. Marv explains that one never went down there alone to gather information, conduct analysis, or plan a cleanup. There were gangs, crimes, and illicit activity. It was described as Tacoma’s armpit, or a big septic tank. It was hazardous water that bubbled, fizzled, and popped with an oil sheen.

After 1,000 years of pristine care and stewardship by the Puyallup Indians, Puget Sound was dying. Rail came, industry came, and, after not quite 100 years of industrialization, it turned the area into a toxic dump. They worked to resurrect environmental sanity in the area.

It was a complex, multistep process. Mary Henley, Senior Engineer for the City of Tacoma, worked with others to identify potentially responsible parties for the pollution. For Zobelle and Ruby (below), the story is now even more immediate and friendly. Their great aunt, Mary Henley, continues that work. “The Department of Ecology was also working with the Health Department to identify sources of pollution,” she states. (Every city near water needs to have Mary Henley and Marv Coleman, Communities for a Healthy Bay.)

With the creation of the EPA in 1970 and the Superfund sites, assistance from the federal government for toxic clean-ups from unconscious growth and industry put Tacoma on a list of 10 cleanup sites in dire need. A moral compass for governance was established. Identifying and quantifying the extent of the pollution, who was behind it, what would happen if nothing was done, and what are the current steps for cleanup.

“Instead of giving up, the city fought back. Entering the ring was a new city manager.” Unconventional, progressive Ray Corpus wanted to clean up and revitalize the shores.

For those of us who read about, deal with, and manage anxiety about Big Oil’s lack of responsibility, this story turns reality into possibility. Like Big Oil, they (the toxic industries in Tacoma) did not think they did anything wrong. In Tacoma, they did business, provided jobs, and grew, along with so much pollution — necessary collateral damage. There is the sight of a million dollar cleanup.

As if examining the scene of a crime, all experts involved worked meticulously. Today, they continue with the Center for Urban Waters. The City of Tacoma is also working very closely with the EPA to make sure the Foss stays clean and safe.

“We did not do all this work and come this far to go backwards.” — Tacoma Mayor, Victoria Woodwards

I can’t think of anyone more knowledgeable, interesting, and historically rich to tell this story than Marv. But, like him, I’m sure the other experts shared their tenacity and worked to revitalize the waterway and the area. They had the foresight to go beyond an idea and culminate in the redemption of a city. It was the ecological visionaries’ waterfront renovation. The city of Tacoma is working very closely with the EPA to make sure the waterway stays clean and safe.

Part 2 will delve deeper into the clean-up and feature more of the work of the Center for Urban Waters (i.e., The Foss Stays Clean).

Note: I’d like to thank Marv Coleman, Melissa Malott, and Logan Danzek from Communities for a Healthy Bay for donating their time and expertise for the day. Meeting ecological professionals like this little group gives one optimism and even more abundant belief that change is achievable. The links in the article are timestamped to the documentary. People from the past and present are fascinating, and their voices illustrate how progress manifests itself.

Communities for a Healthy Bay works to move our vision of a cleaner, healthier Tacoma forward by engaging community members to restore and protect Commencement Bay and South Puget Sound. Whether it’s going out on bay patrol to monitor and patrol for pollution, working with local and state government to advocate for positive policy changes to prevent further pollution and safeguard communities, or pushing for the best possible clean ups of existing contaminated sites, we’re working to set a leading environmental standard here in Tacoma that impacts other places around the world.

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