2015 River Network River Heroes: B.J. Cummings

In this week’s installment of Our Heroes, we talk with B.J. Cummings, principal and founder of Community Environmental Services and, until recently, a development and policy advisor for the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition based in Seattle, WA. Cummings is one of River Network’s 2015 River Heroes, an award that celebrates those who protect rivers by recognizing their victories and honoring the leadership and inspiration they provide. Heroes are nominated and selected by peers and awarded annually at the River Rally.

In 2001, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed the Lower Duwamish River – a five-mile stretch through South Seattle – as a federal Superfund site. The listing indicates that the river is one of the most contaminated sites in the country. The Lower Duwamish River is one of the most industrialized waterways in Washington State, with the Boeing Company and public agencies – the Port of Seattle, King County and the City of Seattle –identified as polluters who will bear the costs of clean up. Additional polluters are still in the process of being identified.

The Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition (DRCC) and partner organizations have been working since 2001 to clean up the Lower Duwamish. The Coalition was founded by local environmental, tribal and community organizations and has been formally recognized as the “Community Advisory Group” for the Duwamish River Superfund Site, ensuring that the cleanup "not only restores environmental health and protects fishers and families who use the river, but also reflects the priorities, values and will of the people who live and work in the region."

Cummings founded the Technical Advisory Group (TAG) and led a public involvement campaign called “River For All" which generated thousands of formal comments on EPA's cleanup plan with testimony in 10 languages; more than 43,000 letters written to the City of Seattle; and even celebrity support from Grammy Award winner Macklemore. Today, the EPA has committed more than $300 million to its cleanup, in large part due to Cumming’s efforts.

Read on to find out how Cummings became a hero.

How did you become a river champion?

I have been working to protect rivers and the communities who depend on them for nearly 30 years, first in the Northeast US, South and Central America, and for the past 20 years in my hometown of Seattle. My focus has always been the intersection between environmental health and human rights, or in the case of the Duwamish – protecting the river for people, not from people.

To quote the “River Hero” nomination submitted by Alberto Rodriguez of DRCC/TAG, while working in Brazil, I “realized the importance of community engagement, empowerment and ownership for the long-term success and sustainability of environmental projects.” According to Rodriguez, “[T]he most important thing she’s brought to the river conservation movement is this: community-driven conservation and restoration of our waterways and the people who depend on them. Ms. Cummings continues to prove that it is possible to empower heavily disadvantaged/ environmental justice communities in conservation and restoration work…. this ripple effect has had not only local, regional and national but also international repercussions.”

Tell us about the Duwamish River – the body of water you protect. When did you first realize, “I need to protect this?”

I moved to Seattle and began working with the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance in 1994, first as their volunteer program manager and later as their Soundkeeper and Executive Director. In that first year, the Duwamish River was one of the training grounds I used to teach kayakers how to patrol for pollution. Despite the fact that it was an extremely polluted and trashed river, it was Seattle’s only river, it was neglected and I fell in love.

Through the 1990s, I focused as much of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance’s attention on it as I could, but all of Puget Sound needed attention as well. Once we secured Superfund designation, the coalition of organizations that had worked on the river asked if I would coordinate the cleanup effort for the community and other stakeholders. We formed DRCC as a coalition effort in 2001, and incorporated as DRCC/TAG in 2006, representing tribal, neighborhood, environmental, small business and social justice interests in the river cleanup.

What are the biggest threats to the Duwamish River (pollution, development, climate change impacts, etc.)?

The historic or “legacy” pollution in the river’s sediments affects the health of the river’s fish, wildlife, nearby residents, workers and most especially, fishing families – most of whom are low-income and immigrant or tribal. Even a single meal of some fish exceeds EPA’s definition of an “acceptable” cancer risk, yet many families fish the river for subsistence and/or cultural reasons on a daily basis, despite the health risks, simply in order to survive. Permanently and safely removing the legacy pollution is critical to the long-term health and survival of many of Seattle’s most vulnerable communities. Ongoing pollution controls are also critical, in order to ensure the long-term health of the river and protect our investment in cleanup.

How do you get people motivated to protect the Duwamish River?

The people who live, work, play and fish in the river are directly affected by the river's pollution and are intrinsically motivated. The real question is: how do you make it worth their effort, when their city, county, port and local business leaders are fighting them, and EPA’s bureaucracy is confounding them? People have been active and effective because we have ensured that their voice is heard, that they know how to take action and that they see results. They lead, and we provide the support, tools, services and amplification that they need to succeed.