by Sue Joerger

I sit in my pickup truck, window down, stuck in traffic in an industrial area of Tacoma. The air is hot and gritty. Miles of container trucks grind through low gears, spewing blue and black smoke. The noise makes me roll up my window. At a red light, I impatiently flip through radio stations. My one year commitment to listen to only country music stations, when I am driving, has long lost its novelty. I turn the radio off.

The first goal of my patrol today is to document industrial uses at a business that discharges untreated stormwater that I suspect is contaminated with toxic metals like zinc into the Thea Foss Waterway.

An aerial view of South Puget Sound and Tacoma.

I park near the railroad tracks, across from the business. I roll down my window and pull out my camera. I start my series of photos at the northeast corner of the lot and move, frame-by-frame, to the west. If I am successful in documenting industrial uses like fueling vehicles, then the business will be required to obtain an industrial stormwater general permit and manage its site to reduce the flow of pollutants into the Thea Foss Waterway and Puget Sound.

Although, the Clean Water Act allows citizens, like me, to make sure Puget Sound water quality is being protected, I also know that the reason I’m out here is that the Washington State Department of Ecology, the agency responsible for protecting water quality, doesn’t have the resources or sometimes political will to get the job done. I have the will, believe me, but some days, I get frustrated with the enormity of the challenge.

I drive on, cross the railroad tracks, make a U-turn and park behind a van with the curtains drawn. Is it just me, or has the homeless population exploded? I take more photos from the southeast to the west. I see a lot of cars, flatbed trucks, forklifts, loaders and other equipment. Next I drive down a gravel road after checking to make sure it is a public property. I get a better angle and snap more photos.

There is clearly industrial activity, but whether it will satisfy all of the legal definitions described to me by our legal team, I’m not sure. There are plenty of loopholes in the laws and regulations that undercut our ability to protect Puget Sound from stormwater pollutants. And the downside of these loopholes is that the economic burden is not spread equitably across all polluters, whether they are individuals, businesses, governments or municipalities.

Image from Eyes Over Puget Sound, July 2015, Publication 15-03-075.

When I’m done taking photos, I stop for a quick lunch at the Poodle Dog, in Fife. I zoom in on the photos and jot down some notes. I don’t find the industrial activities I needed. It’s another loophole. This business can continue to discharge polluted stormwater while several of its neighboring businesses are required to reduce pollutants under the industrial stormwater general permit.

I am depressed. I just read the most recent issue of “Eyes Over Puget Sound” published by the Washington State Department of Ecology, which provides a monthly update of visible water quality conditions in Puget Sound and the Straits of Juan de Fuca. The news isn’t good. Rivers draining into Puget Sound are experiencing lower than normal summer flows and water temperatures around the Sound are the highest recorded since 1989. Oxygen in the water is low, nitrates are high, and there are significant phytoplankton blooms and large patches of jellyfish. And, finally, scientists are hypothesizing that human caused nutrient pollution is changing the Puget Sound marine food web. I feel like we are running out of time for Puget Sound and I want things fixed now. I am so depressed I order a piece of coconut cream pie and regular coffee for dessert.

Back in my truck, I continue to crawl through Port of Tacoma container truck traffic to I-5 and then take the exit to Jack Block Park, on Elliott Bay. My second patrol goal today is to document uses of Terminal 5 to support Puget Soundkeeper’s litigation against the Port of Seattle’s lease to Foss Maritime and Shell Oil’s Arctic drilling fleet. I snap photos of Terminal 5 from south to north.

I walk back towards my truck, and notice that it is a minus tide. I decide to take a few minutes and walk the beach to try to remember why I work to protect Puget Sound. I find the usual pieces of blue and yellow plastic, brown beer bottles, dead crabs, drift wood, feathers and dried seaweed. It is easy for me to think of Elliott Bay as industrial and polluted. But at the surf line I find a perfect sand collar from a Lewis’s Moon Snail. These sand collars, or egg cases, are secreted by female snails, and I spot four of them in the water.

Then I walk under the pier, to look at the barnacles growing on the rip rap. I see a purple sea star, upside down on the sand. I touch it to see if it is alive. The sea star’s tiny suction legs move and attach to my finger.

I haven’t seen a live sea star for a long time, since the sea star wasting disease decimated the population. But this one is alive. Two of its arms are clutched around a rock. It is holding on for dear life. And, I realize, so am I.


Photos: (1) Joe Mabel (2) Eyes Over Puget Sound, July 2015, Publication No. 15-03-075 (3) Sue Joerger/Puget Soundkeeper