Urban Waters Initiative photo identifier

Urban Waters Initiative

Commencement Bay

Aerial photo of Commencement Bay, photo from EPA
Commencement Bay is part of Puget Sound. Located within the heart of the city of Tacoma, Commencement Bay was called “Shubahlup”, or sheltered place by the Nisqually and Puyallup Peoples. At one time, the historic reservation of the Puyallup tribe included 18,000 acres on the shores of the Bay, which was a rich resource for harvesting salmon and shellfish.

The bay got its current name from Lieutenant Charles Wilkes of the United States Exploring Expedition in 1841. Wilkes chose the name because it was the place from which he “commenced” a scientific exploration of southern Puget Sound.

Commencement Bay’s development took off in the 1880s when the Northern Pacific Railway made the site the western terminus of the first trans-continental rail line in the northern United States. With both a seaport and railroad, Commencement Bay and Tacoma became a bustling hub of industry and transportation for the Pacific Northwest.

Along with rail yards, came lumber mills, processing plants, and other industry for a growing city. Over time the Commencement Bay tide flats were dredged and filled in to create more industrial land and deep-water shipping berths. Today the tide flats area has six peninsulas or fingers of land and seven waterways. (The Puyallup River also empties into the Bay).

Up through the early 1980s, industry commonly discharged untreated wastes into the Bay. These pollutants often build up in the mud, sand, and fine particles called “sediment” in the waterways of the tide flats.

Learn more about Ecology's Toxic Cleanup Program’s efforts in Commencement Bay

Pollution Concerns Drive Change

EPA and Ecology: In the early 1980s these environmental agencies sampled and found widespread contamination of the water, sediments, and upland areas. In 1983, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) put Commencement Bay on its “Superfund” list as the Commencement Bay Nearshore/Tide Flats site. EPA’s responsibility was to oversee the clean up of polluted sediments within this area. EPA has completed this clean up and removed many of the waterways from its Superfund list.

The Washington Department of Ecology matched EPA’s work by coordinating the clean up of contaminated sites in the upland areas along and near the shoreline. Ecology has overseen clean up of many sites in the Commencement Bay area, while clean up at additional sites is underway. As clean up has progressed, efforts have shifted to pollution source control, protecting cleaned-up sites, and restoring natural habitats.

Over the past 25 years, Ecology undertook the following efforts to restore Commencement Bay:

  • Finding contaminated near-shore and upland area sites, studying them, and deciding how to safely clean them up.

    Ecology continually discovers new and previously unknown contaminated sites. More than 120 sites within a half-mile of the Bay are in some phase of cleanup. Other areas are cleaned up with pollutants removed, treated, or buried securely. However, some cleaned sites are being re-contaminated with new and different chemicals. Re-contamination is of great concern to land owners, regulatory agencies and the community.
  • Finding and controlling pollution sources before they enter the Bay.

    Far less chemical waste and pollution is now directly dumped into the Bay. Over time, industry and the surrounding community have identified and controlled many pollution sources. Today’s business practices and waste handling are better than those of the past. And though there is now little tolerance for polluting, contaminants still wind up in the Bay. Regulatory agencies are responding to this challenge with “source control”. An important aspect of source control involves inspecting businesses to identify potential pollution sources, finding solutions for controlling those sources, and offering options for preventing pollution.

    Cleanups are time consuming and costly. Good source control prevents previously cleaned-up sites from re-contamination. This saves spending tax dollars on a repeat cleanup of the same site.

Who is Delivering Commencement Bay Protection Programs?

Commencement Bay Cleanup Partners diagram

Several groups coordinate closely and follow an overall strategy to clean up Commencement Bay:
Ecology: For two decades, Ecology has worked on improving Commencement Bay. The agency’s Spills, Toxic Cleanup, Water Quality, and Hazardous Waste and Toxics Reduction programs actively deliver key environmental services. For example, Ecology coordinated the cleanups that made possible much of the development along Tacoma’s downtown waterfront.

The Urban Waters Initiative adds two Ecology inspectors to this core work in Commencement Bay. These inspectors visit businesses and coordinate source control efforts with local and federal agencies. Cleaning up and maintaining a healthier Commencement Bay is part of the larger effort, called the Puget Sound Initiative, to restore Puget Sound by the year 2020.

By adding two new inspectors at Ecology, the Urban Waters Initiative for Commencement Bay aims to do the following:

  • Identify potential sources of contamination or re-contamination and prevent them from reaching the Bay.
  • Ensure that facilities needing environmental permits have them and are in compliance.
  • Help find source control measures that fit individual businesses. This includes toxics reduction (using lesser amounts of toxic chemicals) and pollution prevention (managing, storing and disposing of toxic chemicals so they don’t reach the Bay).
  • Strengthen efficiencies and coordination among Ecology, the City of Tacoma, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, and EPA.

Source control inspectors work closely with businesses to stop pollution problems. In cases where businesses, after repeated assistance and warnings, are unable or unwilling to comply with regulations, Ecology and its partners use enforcement as a last resort.

Local Health Department: Through the Urban Waters Initiative and Puget Sound Initiative, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department added two local source control inspectors. These specialists advise businesses on pollution control; help businesses get necessary permits; make sure that permits are followed; and make referrals to other agencies as needed. The Department also certifies businesses who qualify for the “EnviroStars” excellence award.

City of Tacoma: The City of Tacoma has a long-standing role in finding, preventing, and regulating discharges of pollutants into their wastewater treatment plant, storm drains, and the Bay. The City is nationally recognized for running one of the most extensive stormwater control programs in the country. Inspectors not only help local businesses control pollution – and do enforcement where needed – but they also collect samples analyzed by the city’s laboratory.

Citizens for a Healthy Bay: This non-profit group operates the area’s only water pollution hotline, in cooperation with the City of Tacoma. It also operates a full-time, on-the-water Bay Patrol program. Citizens for a Healthy Bay plays an active role in supporting the clean up of the Commencement Bay Superfund site. The organization engages citizens in the cleanup process and supports permanent and protective cleanup methods. With much of the site cleaned up, Citizens for a Healthy Bay is shifting its focus to protection and restoration work.

Commencement Bay Urban Waters

Scientific Monitoring and Evaluation

Scientific data from Commencement Bay have been collected and analyzed since the 1980s. Data are generated from:

  • Scientific investigations and sampling, which are done at every cleanup site, currently about 120 in number.
  • Sampling done by hundreds of industries, businesses, governments, and treatment plants that have water disposal permits allowing them to discharge to Commencement Bay.
  • Sampling done as part of compliance investigations and enforcement orders of sites near or next to Commencement Bay.
  • Area-wide sampling carried out for streams, creeks and the Puyallup River that flow into Commencement Bay.
  • Special studies for water quality, air quality, fish and shellfish tissue, and sediments.

This environmental monitoring data can help us answer the question, “Is the health of Commencement Bay getting better or worse?”. In summer 2008, Ecology repeated a broad-based, Commencement Bay study previously done in 1998. This research will compare pollution levels from 2008 to 1998 and tell if pollution levels have changed.

When resources are available, Ecology will compile and analyze existing data on nine chemicals of concern . Based on trends and other findings, additional sampling and analysis will be done.

This pollution can affect people and the environment in several ways. Visible examples include lifeless shorelines, closed swimming areas, and colored discharges from outfall pipes. Less visible effects include contaminated sediments, and toxic substances entering shellfish, bottom fish and other parts of the food chain.

Related Web links

Commencement Bay Contacts

Department of Ecology
  • Linda Glasier
    Urban Water Inspector
    Hazardous Waste Program
    Phone: 360-407-6350
    E-mail: lgla461@ecy.wa.gov
  • Adonia McKinzi
    Urban Water Inspector
    Water Quality Program
    Phone: 360-407-0286
    E-mail: admo461@ecy.wa.gov
  • 24-Hour Spill Reporting: 360-407-6300
Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department
  • John Sherman
    Environmental Health Liaison
    Environmental Health Programs
    Phone: 253-798-6528
    E-mail: jsherman@tpchd.org
City of Tacoma
  • Jim Oberlander
    Stormwater, Source Control Supervisor
    City of Tacoma Public Works
    Phone: 253-502-2131
    E-mail: joberlan@cityoftacoma.org
US Environmental Protection Agency
  • Kris Flint, Source Control
    Technical Assistance
    Phone: 206-553-8155
    E-mail: flint.kris@epa.gov
Port of Tacoma Citizens for A Healthy Bay
  • Water Pollution Hotline
    Office: 253-383-2429
    Bay Patrol Direct Cell: 253-255-3895