The Clean Water Act gives community members the power to protect public waterways from illegal pollution, and Soundkeeper pursues Clean Water Act cases against egregious polluters on behalf of our membership and everyone in Puget Sound who depends on clean and healthy waterways. As part of every case, Soundkeeper must demonstrate “standing”. This means proving that the pollution that is occurring harms members of our organization, and that the court has the power to do something about it.
A Clean Water Act case cannot go forward without one or more standing witnesses — citizens willing to testify in court about the harm done to them by the pollution addressed in the lawsuit. Being a standing witness is a powerful way to protect your local waterway. Rivers, streams and estuaries cannot stand up in a courtroom, and neither can the wildlife that depend on them, but we have the power to say something.
Tom Murphy, a professor of anthropology at Edmonds Community College, was a standing witness in Soundkeeper’s recent lawsuit against Whitley Evergreen Manufacturing. Murphy’s involvement with Soundkeeper began in 2007, when he brought a group of students to participate in a kayak patrol on Lake Union. Since then, students from his classes have come out on the water every year. He said his biggest goal with students is to foster their relationships with people, plants and animals. Murphy works closely with local Tribes and was adopted into the Snohomish Tribe.
“Once you start walking down the street and you see and recognize the plants, or you walk through the stream and see the tracks of an animal and you know who they are…you have a reciprocal relationship. You start to care about them,” Murphy explained.
These relationships were his strongest motivator in deciding to be a standing witness. The Whitley case dealt with industrial pollution discharged to Quilceda Creek, which flows into the Snohomish River estuary and then to Puget Sound. Murphy has spend many hours paddling the Snohomish and nearby tributaries and walking the shoreline, and he is a volunteer citizen scientist involved with many projects to protect and restore wildlife habitat along the Snohomish. He led a student project monitoring Quilceda Creek from 2011 through 2014, less than two miles from Whitley’s facility.
When Soundkeeper reached out to Murphy about testifying for this case, he thought about his relationships with the waterways and with the local community. He also thought about Soundkeeper’s track record and careful approach to litigation. “I knew if Puget Soundkeeper was pursuing this, it wasn’t frivolous,” he said. “It was definitely something that was actionable and would get results.”
Murphy has seen the direct impact of pollution, working with pre-spawn mortality salmon surveys like those Soundkeeper conducts in Longfellow Creek. The surveys show that salmon are dying from toxic pollution in streams before they are able to spawn. As someone who swims and fishes regularly, he said, he’s also concerned about the impact of pollution on his health and the health of others who use the water. He testified in his declaration to the court that Whitley’s unpermitted discharge undoes work that he, his students, and numerous community and tribal partners have done to restore and protect Quilceda Creek.
Soundkeeper settled the case with Whitley successfully on April 11. The terms of the consent decree require Whitley to seek an industrial stormwater general permit at their Marysville facility and improve the site to prevent pollution from entering nearby waterways. Thanks to Tom Murphy, Quilceda Creek will have a chance to stay healthy and support fish, birds and people for a long time to come.
Without citizens willing to stand up for their waterways, Puget Sound has a grim future. Soundkeeper is committed to representing and fighting for everyone harmed by illegal pollution. The Clean Water Act gives us the ability to protect the Sound, and we are on the water every day making sure we do our best!
For more about Tom Murphy’s work, you can visit his online academic profile.
Photos: (1,3) Tom Murphy (2) Puget Soundkeeper