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Thursday, February 24, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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South Park -- `We're Seattle's Dumping Ground'

South 96th Stream changes color as it courses toward the Duwamish River through the South Park neighborhood. The water is purple here, orange there. Silver here, green there.

State and county officials say the sickly rainbow is the residue of an alphabet soup of chemicals that leaches into the water from the pollutant-laden soils of neighboring industrial plants.

"There were not a lot of controls in the early development of that area," says Mike O'Neil of the King County Surface Water Management Division. "We've dug down 10, 12 feet. There's metals, organic chemicals, pretty much a real hodgepodge. Some areas appear to meet hazardous-waste criteria."

South 96th Stream is just one of a whopping 19 contaminated sites in South Park on the state Department of Ecology's list of candidates for cleanup.

Dust from cement kilns, more alkaline than ammonia, was used as fill at one site. Two other sites are candidates for the federal Superfund list.

John Beal, a South Park resident who has spent 13 years on a one-man crusade to clean up the neighborhood's streams, can give you a cook's tour of all the local hotspots. "In every other block, there's a different problem," he says.

If any Seattle neighborhood could serve as a poster child for the environmental-justice movement, it's South Park. The community's 3,000 residents, many low-income and nonwhite, live in what may be one of the region's most polluted settings.

"We're Seattle's, we're Washington's dumping ground," Beal says.

South Park straddles the southern city limits, sandwiched between freeways and airports. A half-century ago, much of it was farmland. Now it's a mix of homes and industry.

Polluted Duwamish is their front yard

According to the 1990 Census, South Park's median household income was about $20,000, just two-thirds that of the city as a whole. Its population was 15 percent Hispanic (highest in the city), 13 percent Asian-American, 9 percent African-American, 3 percent Native American.

Since 1990, Beal and other longtime residents say, South Park's Hispanic population has soared. Mexican restaurants and shops and a community clinic that serves a largely Latino clientele line 14th Avenue South, the main commercial street.

The Duwamish River is South Park's front yard. Its bottom is laced with chemicals that have been linked to tumors in bottomfish and immune-system problems in young salmon.

Only two places in King County violate the federal air-quality standard for particulates. One stretches south from Harbor Island to include South Park.

Before Seattle jumped on the recycling bandwagon in the 1980s, city officials considered building a garbage incinerator. Their preferred site: South Park.

State inspectors say illegal discharges and dumping by industry have been problems in the neighborhood. "A lot goes on in there that people don't see," says Larry Holyoke, with Metro's hazardous-waste team.

Doctor wonders about health damage

There are no studies linking pollution with health problems. But Dr. Case Kolff, who has practiced at the SeaMar Clinic on 14th South for more than a decade, says many of his Latino patients from South Park report respiratory ailments. He wonders if it has anything to do with the air they breathe.

Beal says he has found crawdads with extra legs in South 96th Stream. He says he knows workers from a local industrial plant with cuts on their hands that never seem to heal.

He suspects South Park's demographics have a lot to do with its degraded environment. Low-income people who worry about where their next meal is coming from don't have much time to worry about pollution, he says.

Race may play a role, too. Bill Brokaw, president of the South Park Area Redevelopment Committee, a community group, says ethnic divisions have prevented South Park from uniting to improve the neighborhood.

"One group won't talk to another group," he says. "There's no getting together."

Brokaw says city officials don't return his phone calls. Beal wonders if South Park's contaminated sites might be cleaned up faster if the community were whiter and wealthier.

"The people in the agencies tell me this isn't Laurelhurst, this is South Park, so what do I expect?" Beal says.

"I don't see a lot of environmental justice. I see a lot of environmental injustice."

MILESTONES IN THE ENVIRONMENTAL-JUSTICE MOVEMENT

-- 1982: More than 500 arrested in civil-disobedience campaign against proposed toxic-waste landfill in predominantly African-American Warren County, N.C.-- 1983: General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, reports that three of four large hazardous-waste landfills in the Southeast are in predominantly poor, African-American counties.-- 1987: United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice, then headed by the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, releases study that concludes Hispanics and African-Americans are "strikingly over-represented" in communities with commercial hazardous-waste facilities. Chavis coins the term "environmental racism."-- 1988: Environmentalists, civil-rights activists and labor unions stage "Great Louisiana Toxics March" through so-called "Cancer Alley" between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.-- 1990: Civil-rights and minority groups charge nation's major environmental groups with racism in their hiring practices, and with promoting "policies that emphasize the cleanup and preservation of the environment on the backs of working people in general and people of color in particular." Environmentalists promise to reform.-- 1992: EPA task force concludes income, not race, is prime factor in exposure to environmental risk. Chavis and others disagree.-- 1992:National Law Journal report concludes EPA takes longer to identify Superfund sites in minority communities, and imposes smaller fines on polluters in those neighborhoods.-- 1993: EPA announces it will investigate whether siting of hazardous-waste treatment plants in African-American communities in Louisiana and Mississippi violates civil-rights laws.-- Feb. 11, 1994: President Clinton signs executive order on environmental justice, calling all federal agencies to adopt strategies to reverse and prohibit environmental inequities.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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