From the mouth of Tacoma’s Thea Foss Waterway, between a leafy park and a dock that draws a steady crowd toting fishing poles, it’s hard to conceive today of bygone canal conditions that observers likened to a “marine garbage dump” and “the largest septic tank anyone had ever seen.”
These days, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards glide through the gentle current, rented an hour at a time from companies doing brisk business. Schools of orange minnows nip along the edge of docks.
Between the live-aboard docked boats in marinas and a row of new condominium buildings, nearly 1,000 residences line a bustling esplanade that passes along restaurants and museums. Dockside fishermen extract supper from the water, reeling out fish and — despite warning signs about lingering pollution in sediments— red rock and Dungeness crabs on a near-daily basis.
This array of life, along the western side of the Foss, is the kind of best-case scenario for a city waterfront that urban developers design on sketch pads as visions of renewal. And it’s a long way from the Environmental Protection Agency’s 1981 declaration that placed Commencement Bay atop the list of America’s 10 worst toxic-waste sites.
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“It doesn’t mean that we’re done,” said Mary Henley, the city’s project manager for the Foss, who has worked on the project for 22 years. “It means that this is a really cool landmark point.”
A decade has passed since the EPA finished its in-water work on the Foss, the finger nearest the city center of the immense, multipart Superfund project to repair the bay. That cleanup along the fringe of downtown helped spark a renaissance that has brought hundreds of millions of dollars of development toward building something cosmopolitan out of industrial decay.
Public and private-sector observers point to it as a success with, literally, thousands of parents — from the taxpayers and private companies who collectively paid a $105 million cleanup bill to the tenants who bought into the promise that a place Tacoma had treated poorly for decades would blossom with urbanity.
“Tacoma is probably your best example of ‘How do you lift a cloud, a significant cloud, over a significant body of water and the associated uplands?’ ” said Don Meyer, a Port of Tacoma commissioner and former head of the Foss Waterway Development Authority.
The answer came through years of mucky work tracing a subterranean maze of drainage to curtail pollution at its many sources.
“As a result of Commencement Bay having been a Superfund site, the city of Tacoma has probably the most comprehensive stormwater source control program of any city in the United States,” said Marv Coleman, cleanup project manager with the state Ecology Department. “I’m not exaggerating. It’s amazing, the amount of time and trouble they put into checking stormwater.”
The outcome, as now seen in the life along today’s Foss: Steve Hansen, an attorney who moved his office into the Foss-side Thea’s Landing condominium building in 2011, called the waterfront “awesome.”
As a lifelong Tacoman, Hansen, 56, said he had watched the area go from industrial decay — “pretty much a ghost town” — to a landscape he compared to an immense city park.
“The fact that it’s come to the state that it has even makes it more enjoyable,” Hansen said.
This is an auspicious year for the Foss: the 35th anniversary of the EPA’s cleanup-priority declaration and the 10th anniversary of the end of the yearslong labor of cleaning the Foss, including the dredging and removal of the waterway’s toxic sediments. The namesake of the Foss’ antique drawbridge, the late historian and journalist Murray Morgan, would have turned 100 in February. The progress of the waterway and the rest of Commencement Bay are the subject of a Tacoma Historical Society commemoration dinner Saturday.
“It’s what many would call Tacoma’s greatest historic achievement,” said Bill Baarsma, the society’s president.
The transformation process was unprecedented, said Baarsma, whose 2002-09 run as mayor and earlier years on the City Council overlapped with much of the Foss work.
“We’ve come a long way in 35 years,” he said. “In fact, we’ve come a remarkable distance during that time.”
Toxic Commencement Bay
Before the EPA made the spoilage of Commencement Bay national news, a litany of polluters had made muck of it for close to a century.
More than 150 potential pollution sources were identified, and more than 1,000 man-made compounds and metals were detected in the bottom sediments.
Directly on the Foss, the problem sources included a coal gasification plant that ran from 1884 to 1924. It left toxic muck that still must be contained. Seven major city storm drains also piped in untreated water.
For decades, the assumption of Tacoma’s industrial heyday was that ocean tides would flush pollutants out of Commencement Bay and into safe Pacific dilution. That didn’t happen in City Waterway, which was the Foss’ name during that time.
Because salt water is heavier than freshwater, the inland streams that drain (now through pipes) into the waterway from land are lighter than the ocean water that flows in, explained Mary Henley, of the city’s environmental services division. The result: pollutants that built up in the waterway’s sediments never got flushed out.
“Anything that goes into the waterway sediments,” she said, “ends up rolling its way toward the head.”
In Commencement Bay studies, scientists found fish suffered from lesions and liver tumors. Contaminated sediments poisoned sand fleas and mussel larvae, both of which find their way into the food chain via small fish and shellfish.
The mix of chemicals was potent. Arsenic and lead from the world’s tallest smokestack at the Asarco copper smelter, dioxins associated with Simpson Tacoma Kraft paper-mill production and Hooker Chemical’s variety of known contaminating wastes were among a crowded field of afflictions that had bespoiled one of the world’s greatest natural harbors to a degree some considered irreversible.
“To try to turn it into a pristine bay now is sort of like suggesting downtown Tacoma be returned to virgin forest,” a spokesman for Kaiser Aluminum’s Port of Tacoma smelter told The News Tribune in 1989.
When the EPA placed Tacoma among its national top 10 priorities for cleanup in 1981, there had been no significant history of efforts to try to fix what fish biologist Dan Thayer, now deceased, grimly assessed as “a marine garbage dump.”
The mayor at the time, Mike Parker, advocated bringing the city more industrial development, as well as a monorail and a world’s fair. He called the EPA listing “a big political stunt so the agency can keep its funding up” in an interview with The New York Times.
Parker, reached by phone in July at his home in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, now says he made the claim because the EPA didn’t appear to have a serious cleanup in mind. (He’s also planning a move back to Tacoma this fall.)
“It seemed to me at the time that what they were proposing to do was kind of like put a Band-Aid on things,” Parker said. “It wasn’t a serious effort because there wasn’t really much in those days they could tell me about what they were going to do.”
Cleanups throughout Commencement Bay were complicated by the variety of pollutants as well as the envisioned uses of the sites.
Around various port-area industrial sites, the general idea was to stem the flow of toxic chemicals into the water, remove what could be dug up or dredged away and put a permanent cap on the rest, whether on land or in the water.
The goal was to revive Commencement Bay as a sustainable habitat — in which eelgrass beds and other foundational ecosystem elements could survive — while cleaning up the land enough that new, hopefully cleaner, industries could be brought in.
For the city, the Foss was a more intimate situation. The place where downtown met the waterfront was, through the 1980s, largely the site of dilapidated industrial buildings and concrete slabs.
“It was, literally, contaminated uplands (and) burned-out warehouses,” said Michael Slevin, the city’s environmental services director. “There was a concrete plant. There was a burnt-out furniture warehouse where The Henry is now.”
The waterway stank of petroleum, particularly at low tide, Slevin added, and oil and coal tar would ooze along periodically.
“It was nasty is what I would call it,” he said. “… We pulled fish out of there that had big growths on their backs.”
Sheri Tonn, a chemist and a board member of the nonprofit Citizens for a Healthy Bay, recalled standing along the Foss with the actor Ted Danson, who was working on a water-pollution project, when a city drainpipe offered up evidence of the problem.
“We literally saw a crumpled-up lawn chair come out of that storm drain,” Tonn said.
The waterway’s banks were lined by a different mess: disrepaired boats and dilapidated piers.
“You had marinas that basically had derelict vessels,” said Meyer, the former Foss Waterway Development Authority head. “Some of them were literally, and I mean this, literally sunk and still tied to the piers with their ropes.”
Fixing a complicated mess
Eventually, city, state and federal officials cobbled together a plan.
The city took the largest leap of faith. In 1991, it bought 27 acres of Foss-adjacent land for $6.8 million from a spinoff company of Burlington Northern Railroad and assumed responsibility for its pollution and that of the water.
“In the long range, it would not likely have been done or completed 10 years ago if the city had not made that move,” said Brad Jones, an attorney with Gordon Thomas Honeywell, which was hired by the city to work on the myriad legal issues involved.
The state Department of Ecology wrote a single standard for fixing polluted sites around the Foss. And EPA regulators supervised a plan to dredge out the worst sediments in the Foss while the city worked upstream to shut off pollution sources.
“It took us two or three years to really convince people that that was the right strategy,” said Karen Larkin, former assistant director of Tacoma Public Works.
The dredging alone took four years. Some 425,000 cubic yards of the toxic muck were barged out to the St. Paul Waterway next to what was then the Simpson Tacoma Kraft Co. pulp mill. There, the toxic muck was buried in a sealed disposal site and placed under a permanent cap, which created about 12 acres of new land for the mill’s industrial use.
The decaying and creosote-treated marina piers were ripped out and replaced with sturdier concrete, which does not have the same harmful effect on waterway chemistry.
“This was clearly a city kick-starting the development of its front porch,” Jones said.
The process played out over more than two decades of site evaluations, chemical testing, policy writing and physical effort. It was not without problems — fresh contamination discoveries called for several rounds of retesting. Then, in 2006, the EPA said the in-water work was done.
The rebirth of the canal as the front lawn of the city was already underway. The first condominium building on the water, Thea’s Landing, opened in 2002 just in time for the dredging to start.
“If that wouldn’t have been kind of a done deal in 2002, we probably wouldn’t have moved forward with Thea’s Landing,” said Scott Carino, the project’s builder.
Fresh waterfront development
The marinas and condominium buildings along the reborn Foss are the product of work by the Foss Waterway Development Authority, a city-appointed agency created to revive what the city labeled an “underutilized and blighted waterfront area in the heart of the city.”
Its work remains ongoing. The agency is helping to raise $12 million to build two parks and working to find developers for a handful of parcels.
“What’s great about this waterway is that it’s a working waterway at the foot of a downtown,” said Norm Gollub, the development authority’s director.
Marinas along the Foss report waiting lists for their allotments of slips where people can live aboard their boats full-time.
“That’s never happened before,” said Alan Gregory, a maintenance worker at Foss Harbor Marina. “People want to be here.”
Gregory, 51, has worked at the marina since 2005, when the waterway was being dredged. He said the cleanup of the waterway did come with one complaint.
“Some of the old-timers down here would complain when it started to get cleaned up,” he said, “because stuff would grow on their boats and they’d have to go clean it off. That never had happened before. Nothing would grow in the water.”
A walk along each side of the 1.2-mile Foss today reveals the area as an unfinished centerpiece of the cityscape. Its landscaped pedestrian esplanade winds past condominium buildings, the Museum of Glass, restaurants, park spaces and state-of-the-art marinas — as well as vacant lots and concrete slabs fringed by untamed blackberry-vine growth.
The pleasant walk peters out at the head of the canal, where the barbed-wire-topped fence of Berg Scaffolding marks the point at which new urbanism abuts the old industry of the port side of the Foss.
No waterfront pedestrian esplanade exists on the eastern side, and even inland the sidewalks nearest the waterway precariously skirt busy commercial traffic and railroad tracks.
The future of the east Foss waterfront remains unclear. Port industries have opposed allowing the west Foss’ condo-building growth to spread there, out of fear of an incursion on the needs of heavy industry. The one new building among the aging industry is the Urban Waters Institute, built next door to an array of oil-storage tanks after port-based concerns beat back a proposal to build condominiums on the Foss’ traditionally industrial side.
Some of that industrial landscape of the eastern side could change soon.
Berg Scaffolding is on a short lease while the Foss Waterway Development Authority gets the money and plans together for a park there that will cater to kayakers and other users of human-powered watercraft. Farther down the waterway, the former site of the J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corp., Tacoma’s oldest shipyard, sits derelict after 90 years in business. A homeless person’s campsite sat next to the property’s for-sale sign one recent afternoon.
Meyer said the Martinac site’s next life would fit with the new life of the Foss if it incorporated a water-dependent use — a boat-repair facility, for example. Overall, he said, the port needs to formulate a plan for the future of the eastern side.
“Now’s the perfect time to do it,” Meyer said.
Gollub concurred with the vision.
“This is a long way off,” he said, “but ideally, I would see a more transitional zone between the Foss Waterway and the port property.”
Although the western side of the Foss has grown a cosmopolitan shine, development there too remains incomplete. Vacant spaces south of the Murray Morgan Bridge have been slated for an assisted-living facility and a hotel that has been discussed for more than a decade, along with a public space Metro Parks is working to develop under the name Central Park. Nearby, the long-disused municipal dock site awaits its next life.
At the Tacoma Maritime Fest’s July celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Foss cleanup, City Councilman Ryan Mello spoke of another unfinished aspect of the new Foss: extending the pedestrian esplanade to connect with the foot-and-bicycle path along Ruston Way. This would complete the long-promised Dome to Defiance pedestrian connection, if it ever gets built.
Gollub said the goal most likely would come to fruition by curving the footpath path inland to avoid the railroad tracks and towering grain elevators at the Tacoma Export Marketing Co., which has a ship-loading dock that extends into the bay.
“Our biggest challenge is funding the esplanade to complete it,” Gollub said.
Sustaining the revived Foss
In the years since the end of the EPA’s in-water work, local and federal officials have periodically monitored the Foss for signs the situation is sustainable.
There have been several hiccups.
After the work finished in 2006, the EPA found that mussel larvae and sand fleas exposed to waterway sediments couldn’t thrive because of pollutants called phthalates, used in plastics and detergents, that required additional pollution-capping work. The phthalate level in the Foss remains a cause of concern, city environmental services director Michael Slevin said.
The following year, the agency fined Tacoma $358,000 for missed pollution-containment deadlines related to a delayed berm around the Foss sediments that were moved to the St. Paul Waterway site near the pulp mill.
And in 2013, officials went upstream in storm drains to find the source of an influx of toxic PCBs that had tainted the water. Officials traced the problem to a neighborhood storm drain on a street where the long-banned chemicals were used as sealant under a road in 1975 and dug out the problem.
Mary Henley, the city’s longtime manager for the Foss project, said it takes about a decade for an ecosystem to stabilize after a significant change. A round of testing this fall, she said, could help confirm that the waterway’s new life is for real. Initial signs are good, she said.
“It appears pretty stable physically,” she said.
The waterway is “pretty impressive to take a look at” now, said Bill Ryan, the EPA’s project manager for Commencement Bay since 2012. After this year’s tests are complete, he said, the agency will decide how closely its long-term monitoring plan should scrutinize conditions in the Foss.
“The first 10 years of monitoring has shown that the work looks like it’s pretty successful,” he said.
Although the waterway is safe enough to kayak and paddleboard in, and the pollution caps are holding fast by all accounts, it is far from immaculate. Plenty of undesired stuff from street runoff, driveway car-washing and other activities flows into the drains and, thus, the Foss, Henley said.
Signs along the Foss docks carry an admonition in eight languages that shellfish, crabs and bottom-dwelling fish from anywhere in Commencement Bay shouldn’t be eaten.
Although the cleanup’s main goals included reviving the waterway as a habitat for life, making the area safe for shellfish harvesting wasn’t included, Henley said. The final agreement for the site in 2006 included a requirement to post the warning signs about fishing the waters for food indefinitely.
But to some, the allure of the cleaned-up Foss as a healthy waterway is more persuasive than the warning signs.
Fishing for crabs one July morning near the waterway’s mouth, Yroslav Salo, 58, shrugged when a visitor brought up the pollution in the Foss, where Salo’s a regular fisherman.
On his best day, he took home five Dungeness crabs and six red rock crabs. Salo, a Federal Way resident originally from Ukraine, had only one complaint about the waters: the small size of the crabs so far in 2016.
After Salo packed up his camp chair, Charlotte Johnson, 31, of Auburn, and Brad Thomas, 41, of Puyallup, took over the fishing spot.
Asked what they thought of crabbing in waters despite a posted warning, Johnson pointed at a hand-sized red rock crab in their cooler and spoke of the meal it would help provide. The waters of the post-cleanup waterway seemed worthy from the dock, she said.
“I don’t think about it,” Johnson said. “I breathe the air. I want to eat what I catch. It’s tasty.”