by Sue Joerger
Bright green blackberries bushes thick with white blossoms crowd the banks of the Green River. The air is sweet with the smell of cottonwoods and thick with pollen from the blooming grasses. I sneeze a dozen times as I ride my bike south on the Interurban Trail looking for illegal water pollution.
As I cross the retired railroad bridge at the intersection of the Interurban and Green River Trails I stop to take photos of a derelict fishing net bobbing in the current. The river level is already summer low. I see a grocery cart on its side in the middle of the river resting on top of a huge pile of red bricks. Scattered upstream from the cart are parts of a kid’s bike: a handle bar, miscellaneous chain rings, and two crank arms.
I am conducting a field investigation of unpermitted stormwater dischargers between Kent and Auburn and am saddened to see the river being used as a garbage dump. As I look upstream from the dump, I see a flash of light and hear the sound of heavy equipment. Nestled in a bend of the Green River are four auto wreckers. I am surprised at their proximity to the river. The byproducts of auto recycling are quite toxic and include oil, gasoline, diesel, transmission and brake fluids, as well as mercury, lead, PCBs, copper and zinc. I watch a loader move piles of shiny metal as the sun breaks through the dark gray clouds.
Today, the Green River travels from its headwaters near Stampede Pass through the cities of Auburn, Kent and Tukwila and the lightly industrialized Auburn/Kent Valley. It then flows into the Duwamish River before reaching Elliott Bay and Puget Sound. Near where I am standing the Green River is listed as an impaired waterway because of low dissolved oxygen and high water temperatures. It is a Category 5 river under the 303 (d) list, which means it is required to have a cleanup plan (or Total Daily Maximum Load) assigned to each pollution source to keep the river cool and high in oxygen for steelhead and other aquatic life. Since only 5% of the waters of the State have been sampled for pollutants it is likely that this stretch of the river has never been tested for metals, but I expect that it is also high in pollutants like copper and zinc, which wash off of industrial sites and roadways into nearby waterways.
Before climbing back on my bike I zoom in to take photos of the Union Pacific Railroad Bridge, which crosses the Green River and runs parallel to the Interurban Trail. I scan the concrete footing of the rusty bridge for cracks and erosion; check the creosote logs for rot or broken cross beams and look for loose or missing bolts. Oil trains travel this route. I am working with the Waterkeeper Alliance in a national effort to document failing railroad infrastructure that could derail oil trains, which carry highly explosive cargo. I am relieved to see little of concern at this location.
By the time I reach Auburn, my camera is full of photos. And I have gotten what I came for: photos of two storm drains that discharge from an unnamed (for now) industrial site directly into the Green River.
As I turn around to ride North a deformed puppy circles the trail in a lopsided gait, her mouth gaping. I slam on my brakes to avoid her. Then later a man startles me, as he walks slowly onto the trail, dried blood running down his face from a bruise on his forehead. He wears a faded wool coat and hood in the hot sun. He doesn’t ask for help and I am afraid to stop. The trail is deserted. But this is typical of the places I patrol: forgotten backroads, polluted waters and people living on the edge.