AS CITY TOURS go, it isn't Gray Line. Scenic sights include toxic-waste locales and polluted neighborhoods. Seattle City Council member Judy Nicastro is at the wheel and Yalonda Sinde is her guide. As executive director of the Community Coalition for Environmental Justice, Sinde will direct Nicastro to some of Seattle's skunkier landmarks, seeking to enlist her in the battle against neighborhood pollution. Sinde whittled 48 possible polluted stops to a representative few. As she climbs into the city gas- electric hybrid car, Nicastro takes the driver's seat, banishing aide Jill Berkey to the back because, she says, "I get car sick." Wait till she whiffs the air ahead.
On 18th Avenue, Nicastro meets members of the Jackson Place Community Council. They walk her down a passageway next to an apartment house. Had the apartment building just been painted? "These kinds of fumes make me nauseous," Nicastro says.
The odor is, in fact, wafting over from Jergen's Paint Company next door. Nicastro is surprised to find a large paint shop in the midst of an otherwise cozy, leafy residential neighborhood. Eric Wilcox, a county worker who lives across the street, and Nicastro have a conversation that goes:
Judy: "What is it zoned?"
Judy: "How can . . . "
Eric: "They just did."
Once a plumbing operation, the paint shop was given City Hall's blessing more than a decade back, Wilcox says, making change difficult. The company has been forced to limit hours of operations, although Wilcox claims, "I've gone over and shut them down on Sundays."
He and neighbors feel bullied. One of the shop's representatives told him, Wilcox informs Nicastro, "'If there's a big dog in your neighborhood, would you go mess with that big dog?' It sounded like a threat."
Nicastro listens to the hard hum of paint-ventilation stacks. "It's not an allowable use if they don't have proper buffers," she says.
A Jergen's spokesperson says the operation is in compliance with city and environmental regulations.
In a few minutes, Nicastro wheels around the Veterans Administration (VA) Hospital atop Beacon Hill, surrounded by modest homes and apartments. "This is a success story," Sinde exclaims. She points to a three-story medical-waste incinerator that she says her group got closed down. "They were burning bleach products and plastics, which can cause cancer because it doesn't break down in the environment." Nicastro shakes her head.
The VA confirms it shut down the incinerator to prevent hazardous burning.
Sinde, 38, who runs a small office on 14th Avenue with minor grants, private contributions, and volunteers, tells Nicastro hers is the only local environmental group headed by a black woman. The nonprofit doesn't attract money like the glitzy environmental organizations do, Sinde says. "We've mixed environmentalism with social justice. We're not trendy."
Nicastro whips down the hill toward Georgetown, passing the Philip Services Corp. toxic-waste storage and transfer plant on South Lucille Street. For decades, its chemical spills have contaminated Georgetown's environment, leaving a toxic groundwater plume and filling residential basements with gases. "Residents complained for years, and no one cared," Sinde says.
The plant now operates under state and federal cleanup orders.
It is more of the same in nearby South Park. Next to the Long Painting Company plant, Nicastro meets up with Penni Hocking, one of the activists who exposed the company's violations of the law. One of her mentors, legendary rabble-rouser Tim O'Brian, 65, featured in several Seattle Weekly stories, died last week of cancer.
The company plans to move out of Seattle now that Hocking, O'Brian, and others pushed the city to enforce its zoning laws. "But what will be left?" Hocking wonders. Is the site polluted? Can it be recovered?
A company spokesperson says, "There was no pollution to begin with and no pollution will be left behind. Many mistruths have been spread about this site."
Nicastro studies the homes abutting Long's fence line. For decades, neighbors begged City Hall to help end conditions next door. Some neighbors claimed ventilated odors and dust forced them to don surgical masks while mowing lawns. "This just shouldn't have happened," Nicastro says. But she was noncommittal.
Before they leave, Nicastro tells Sinde she toured South Park the day before, talking with business leaders worried about the economics of strict zoning enforcement. Sinde looks surprised. Nicastro says she had to hear both sides. OK, Sinde nods. Later she was smiling. "I think we've got her ear," Sinde confides. Well, her nose, anyway.