What does the Duwamish River look like? Water whirlpool. Croaking of herons. Ships hum. James Rasmussen tells stories.
The waterway that passes through South Park, Georgetown and Sodo to Elliott Bay will lose a voice this summer when Rasmussen, after more than three decades of work to revive the polluted stretch, retires and leaves Seattle.
The 66-year-old, longtime member of the Duwamish Tribal Council and leader of the Duwamish River Community Coalition, whose uncompromising advocacy and understanding of Indigenous history has helped secure and oversee cleanup projects crucial, recently sold the Beacon Hill home where he grew up and is moving to Las Vegas, where his daughter lives.
“It kinda breaks my heart,” said BJ Cummings, who founded the Coalition. “But we will continue to see its influence on the people who will continue the work.”
Rasmussen fished the river as a child, gliding through the water with his father in the dark just before sunrise. Industrialized from the early 1900s, the waterway was gravelly by the 1960s. Still…
“Once we caught this big salmon. It was pulling us around the river,” he said. “Then he wrapped our line around the docks and disappeared.”
Descended from people who lived along the Black River, a tributary of the Duwamish River, Rasmussen learned from his grandfather and mother that the animals he saw while fishing were his relatives, he said. declared.
“Because my family is from here and they are from here,” he said.
Rasmussen was not only attracted to restoration work. The Franklin High graduate was also enchanted by jazz, studying trumpet at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He started a band in Seattle and ran a record store in Pioneer Square.
Yet the river has always mattered, he said, recounting how the Duwamish Tribe stopped the Port of Seattle from paving the last fragment of the lower waterway’s original habitat. The tidal grasses now spread, preserved as həʔapus Village Park and Herring’s House Park in Delridge. Rasmussen helped build the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center across the street.
“What this place was, it will never be again,” Rasmussen said, nodding at the sea cranes that stood where the wetlands once stretched as June rain soaked his old Sonics jacket. . “But how do you find that balance, where industries, communities and wildlife can thrive?”
Rasmussen immersed himself in environmental work in the 1980s and 1990s, alongside Cummings and local activist John Beal. They patrolled the river for polluters and led cleanup teams. People used the water as a dump.
“The river was literally full of scrap metal, cars, trucks,” Cummings said.
The bottom of the river was heavily contaminated with industrial waste. Rasmussen became the Duwamish Tribe’s point person after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the waterway as a Superfund site in 2001.
In that role and later as the Coalition’s executive director, he and other activists pushed the EPA and partners like the port for more remediation and immediate cleanups, Cummings said. Although Rasmussen has no degree in ecology, his connection to water made the difference.
“There’s no questioning that kind of authority,” Cummings added. “You could argue with him about whether something was technically accurate, but he knew the river better than most scientists.”
The results? The EPA’s $342 million cleanup plan, released in 2014, included 25% more work than originally planned. “Early actions” have already eliminated 50% of polychlorinated biphenyls, the most widespread and toxic chemicals. Animals like otters have returned to the river.
Next month, a new green space called Duwamish River People’s Park and Shoreline Habitat will open in South Park on cleared property that the port was going to keep for industrial use until Rasmussen and other activists opposed it, said noted Harbor Commissioner Ryan Calkins.
Today, Rasmussen thinks there might be “more variety of wildlife in the Duwamish Estuary than anywhere else in Seattle,” he said.
That success hinges on community power, he said, with the Coalition making sure the people who live and work near the river, many of whom are immigrants, are heard.
“When 150 people show up for a meeting in South Park…the EPA pays attention,” Rasmussen said.
Rasmussen knows when to use a soft touch and when to stay firm, said Paulina López, the Coalition’s executive director. He mentored López, then stepped down to serve as the Coalition’s Superfund manager and left her to lead. Now the Coalition is training young people to advocate for environmental justice in their own neighborhoods, following Rasmussen’s advice for politicians from Seattle to Washington, D.C.
“Sit down, shut up and listen,” he said. “People in the community know more about the problem than you do, and they have ideas.”
When Rasmussen and his sister decided it made sense to sell the Beacon Hill house, he looked around for a new home. Prices have soared.
He searched Seattle, “which was way too expensive,” then Tukwila, SeaTac, Burien and Renton before deciding to “start something new,” he said.
The Duwamish Tribe launched a new legal campaign last month to seek recognition from the US government. Rasmussen’s quest to clean up has been key, said tribal council member Ken Workman.
“The health of the Duwamish people is tied to the health of the river,” Workman said. “He did this for all of us.”
Rasmussen intends to stay in touch with the work, via Zoom. The salmon have not come up in large numbers yet. It would be the ultimate success, he says, counting on the next generation. The Coalition is currently lobbying the EPA to maintain Harbor Island’s cleaning standards.
“The river is in a much better place than it was,” Rasmussen said. “But there is so much more we can do.”