Being a mother brings environmental challenges to the fore

My goal as an artist has always been to create work that shines light on environmental issues, to try to make a difference while there is still time. 

Now, as a mother, I feel even more driven toward that goal. When I moved to this beautiful Island four years ago, it appeared to be an idyllic place to live and raise a family. Yet over time, more and more has been revealed to me to show that several environmental issues exist here. It’s hard for me to go through each day without thinking about at least one of them.  

When my daughter plays in the dirt or when I garden or buy produce grown on Maury Island, I think of the arsenic and lead contamination caused by the former ASARCO Copper Smelter near Tacoma. Based on a brochure I received in the mail a few years ago, where I live on Maury Island, the arsenic contamination is noted to be “greater than 200 ppm,” or one level below being considered a Super-fund site.When we walk around or play in Quartermaster Harbor, I think of the fact that over half of the harbor’s shoreline is permanently closed to shellfish harvesting due to pollution, according to The Beachcomber. This pollution is caused partly by failing or non-existent septic tanks that are leaking waste into the waters in and around our Island.

When I drive to Vashon town, I pass the Harrington Beall Greenhouses, the fascinating, abandoned 17-acre site that once housed the Western Hemisphere’s largest commercial greenhouse complex. This site requires and awaits the cleanup of pesticides, oil, metals and asbestos in the soil, according to state documents.

And just until recently, whenever I heard a gravel truck pass by our place (which was about one per hour), I thought of the Glacier Northwest gravel mine just up the road from us. Glacier proposed to expand its operation to become the largest gravel mine of its kind, which would have devastated the shoreline, wildlife, expansive madrone forest and drinking water supply of many people on Maury Island. 

As much as I struggle with this knowledge each day, it is reassuring to know that steps are currently being taken to address some of these environmental issues on Vashon. 

A huge settlement from ASARCO is being used for an extensive public outreach and education campaign, as well as to address the 1,000-square-mile area of contaminated soil in our region, which includes our Island. (In my research, I found that ASARCO is responsible for the largest environmental bankruptcy in United States history and is responsible for other sites around the country becoming contaminated by hazardous waste.)

The Glacier Northwest gravel mine was recently prevented from expanding and closed. King County purchased the 250-acre site with a combination of state, county and private funds, including $14.5 million from the ASARCO settlement.

According to The Seattle Times, state and local officials have released a plan for more inspections and enforcement on all pollution fronts, including septic tanks, livestock operations, small hobby farms, dairies and other pollution points in Puget Sound, as well as provide more education and help for landowners. And both the state and county have developed public information about how to handle septic system failure.

Finally, the King County Brownfields Program conducted an environmental assessment of the Harrington-Beall Greenhouse site in 2006, identifying environmental conditions on the property and remedial options and alternatives for abatement. 

I currently have an exhibit at VALISE gallery that aims to help keep the dialogue open about these issues so that we all can be aware of them and work on them. It is hard for me to talk about these issues knowing that we all, myself included, are part of the problem. Each one of us can make positive choices each day and be a part of the solution. I have come to love living on Vashon and am excited to raise my children here. I just want it to be a truly idyllic place for them, not just a facade.


 — Heather Joy’s current art show, Remnants II, is on display at VALISE. 



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