Commencement Bay is part of Puget Sound, a large waterway carved out by glaciers over several Ice Ages. The Bay is surrounded by the City of Tacoma on three sides. The Puyallup River, which begins at Mount Rainier, flows into Commencement Bay, creating a large delta area, or tideflats. The Hylebos Creek flows into the northeast end of the bay.
The Puyallup Tribe lived on the shores of Commencement Bay for thousands of years. The tribe had several settlements along the Puyallup River delta by the time Euro-Americans arrived in the mid-1800s1. Industrial growth began with sawmills for the plentiful, nearby timber. In 1873, Commencement Bay became the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad, driving further development.
Over the past 150 years, Commencement Bay has seen many changes. Development has meant filling in the tideflats to create industrial land, and dredging out waterways for boats and ships. This has dramatically changed the environment and reduced habitat for native species. Many of the industries that operated on the Bay also created long-term pollution issues. A large part of the problem is that much of the contamination happened before federal and state pollution laws were created.
Some of the pollution sources include:
In the early 1980s, Ecology staff began finding evidence of widespread contamination in Commencement Bay sediments. It was clear that many upland sources were contributing to the pollution, and that major cleanup work would be needed to restore the bay.
In 1981, Commencement Bay was placed on the Superfund program’s national interim priorities list—the top 115 priority hazardous waste sites in the country. At that time, it was Washington’s highest priority site. EPA and Ecology then worked out the Ecology—EPA Cooperative Agreement, giving Ecology the lead role in the investigation.
In December of 1983, the Commencement Bay Nearshore/Tideflats site was officially added to the National Priorities List (NPL). The “site” included four main areas: the Asarco Smelter site and Ruston/North Tacoma Study Area; Tacoma Tar Pits; and the Tideflats Area. The first steps in the Superfund cleanup process included:
Under EPA’s cleanup plan for Commencement Bay, Ecology was responsible for source identification and source control. Ecology inspectors first tried to identify all possible pollution sources around Commencement Bay. They went “door-to-door” in the tideflats, talking to facility owners, researching historical land uses, and taking environmental samples.
The next step was to try to reduce or eliminate all toxic releases to Commencement Bay before EPA began sediment cleanup. Any remaining toxic sources would only re-contaminate the cleanup area. Ecology worked with facility owners and operators to improve their chemical management and disposal practices. Ecology also gave grant funding to the City of Tacoma to help manage pollution in stormwater.
As Ecology identified sources and began source control, EPA planned for sediment cleanup. Sediment cleanup can involve:
Commencement Bay was the first Superfund site in the nation to begin delisting cleaned up waterways. After 15 years of monitoring, St. Paul Waterway was taken off the National Priorities list in 1996. Sediment cleanup information is available for all of the waterways within the Superfund site.
Today, Commencement Bay is a cleaner and healthier environment than in 1981, when it became a Superfund site. However, there is still much work to be done. Sediments continue to be monitored and work is ongoing at upland cleanup sites across the tideflats. Please visit the Cleanup Projects page for more information about upland cleanup sites. The City of Tacoma has taken the lead on a number of habitat restoration projects around the bay, through an agreement with EPA. Perhaps most importantly, agencies and the public are working together to help prevent future contamination. Please visit the Urban Waters Initiative page to learn more about preventing pollution.
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