St. Paul Waterway marks environmental milestone

New Tacomans don’t remember when the Tacoma Aroma was more than a Seattle-driven catchphrase to diss its smaller sibling.

Tacoma stunk. Industries on the waterfront were filling the sky with rotten-egg-smelling chemicals like hydrogen sulfide.

Commencement Bay was once considered one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country. It is now a national model of restoration of urban waterways. The journey from being a Superfund site to the envy of other restoration efforts is 25 years old this month.

“What we see today is a healthy habitat that stemmed from hard work and cooperation among the company and community partners with a steadfast commitment to restoring our urban bays." Dave McEntee, Simpson Tacoma Craft Co.

Simpson Tacoma Kraft Co. marked that transformation with tours of the St. Paul Waterway beach for workers, their families, environmentalists and officials up and down the ranks who led the restoration and Superfund cleanup project. The cardboard and lumber maker sits at ground zero of the cleanup.

“When we purchased the pulp and paper mill in 1985, the shoreline had been polluted for more than 60 years,” said Dave McEntee, vice president, Operations Services. “But we had a vision not only for Simpson, but to restore the bay’s natural habitat and prevent future pollution.”

The former mill operator, Champion International, and other logging operations had left toxic chemicals in the water and in the soil. The St. Paul Waterway soon became the first Superfund project and habitat restoration in U.S. coastal waters. Simpson Tacoma Kraft and Champion worked out an agreement with the EPA to cap the contaminated sediment along the spit and change water treatment methods ahead of requirements to do so.

Simpson officials met with City of Tacoma, the Puyallup Tribe, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Washington Department of Natural Resources, public officials and environmental and citizen groups to develop a restoration plan.

Just three years later, 17 acres of underwater sediment was replaced with 300,000 cubic yards of clean soil and seven acres of vital marine habitat where the Puyallup River enters. Citizens for a Healthy Bay took form to rally beach clean ups, monitor the waterways and promote the cause. The project is now recognized as a model for industrial and environmental partnership. It is one of the few Superfund sites around the country to be restored without litigation. Ponder that. Everyone agreed on the cleanup plan and who was going to pay for it.

“There really is no precedent for this,” Simpson’s Legal Counsel Ken Weiner said.

Robert Clark walked the beach overlooking Simpson’s pulp facility last week, and for him it was like a trip to see an old friend. Clark is now retired from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The cleanup of the St. Paul site was one of his projects.

“It has been a lot of fun to see how it all worked out,” he said. A native Tacoman, he remembers going sailing on Commencement Bay and constantly having to dodge driftwood and industrial trash. The water is now clear of debris and plants. Fish and birds have returned as well. “It has gone from a Superfund site to a home to marine organisms.”

The St. Paul site also marked the first cleanup that now touches dozens of sites around the tideflats and every inlet and waterway. Those sites too are seeing progress.

“The beach restoration has been a tremendous success,” McEntee said. “What we see today is a healthy habitat that stemmed from hard work and cooperation among the company and community partners with a steadfast commitment to restoring our urban bays. It’s a beautiful setting that will continue to provide critical habitat for marine life and economic opportunity for our employees and the community.”


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