No love lost between Pacific County, state Ecology office
Study illustrates complaints about environmental bureaucracy


The Oregonian - 4/7/02

SOUTH BEND -- Does the state Department of Ecology have an attitude problem?

Or are locals in rural Pacific County just stubborn?

That question lurks beneath the Willapa River, running through the heart of a dispute between Ecology and county leaders who say the state agency ignored their warnings and then refused to pay for its mistakes in a water pollution study.

The state agency is no stranger to criticism. The governor's Competitiveness Council noted Ecology's reputation as "unresponsive and unaccountable" in its 2001 report on the state's business climate.

"This is a classic example of that problem," said Pat Hamilton, one of three commissioners for Pacific County. "We were going to that bureaucratic wall, and we were unable to get them to listen to us."

The Willapa is one of nearly 700 Washington waterways that must be evaluated and cleaned over the next 11 years under the Clean Water Act. Five years ago, Ecology began studying it to determine the amount of pollution and create a plan for cleaning it.

They found high salt levels in Willapa Bay -- presumably from local sewage treatment plants. High salinity decreases dissolved oxygen, making it harder for fish to live. State officials said Pacific County and local towns would probably have to build a new sewage treatment plant, costing $8 million to $10 million -- about $5,000 per hookup.

Local officials didn't take that kindly. The Pacific County economy, as elsewhere in southwest Washington, traditionally relied on timber, fishing and agriculture -- three sectors that have suffered over the past decade. The county and its residents couldn't easily afford a new plant.

What happened next is in dispute. Ecology officials say locals complained but didn't name specific flaws in the draft report. Local officials say they repeatedly raised technical concerns, including criticism of the salinity numbers.

"We were just told that we didn't understand the model," Hamilton said. "I think they are well intended, but sometimes they appear to consider local people as less than informed."

Pacific County, the Willapa Bay port and the cities of Raymond and South Bend hired their own consultant for $130,000.

Factor of 1,000

The consultant discovered the computer model Ecology used to create the draft inflated salinity in Willapa Bay by a factor of 1,000. While the bay does have pollution problems, they're not as bad as Ecology first estimated.

Ecology officials revised the model and started a new draft report, work that continues today. They thought the problem had been neatly solved.

"To me it's a symbol the process is working," said Kelly Susewind, regional water quality manager. "We need the locals to review independently the validity of our models."

The locals don't see it that way.

The $130,000 for the consultant could have paid for a new sheriff's deputy, Hamilton noted.

"That's money we didn't have to spend," she said.

There's no love lost between Hamilton and the Department of Ecology. In her office she displays a sign declaring, in red letters, "OUR STATE GOVERNMENT IS BEING RUN BY ENVIRONMENTAL COMMUNISTS" -- memorabilia from Hamilton's fight against Ecology's new shoreline rules, which were invalidated by a judge last year.

The dispute might have simply simmered in Pacific County, if not for the locals' political activism. Senate Majority Leader Sid Snyder, D-Long Beach, a powerful force in Olympia, represents Pacific County.

He rallied bipartisan support around a bill allowing people who disagree with the Ecology pollution studies to request a hearing before an administrative law judge. If the judge finds Ecology was wrong, the judge can scrap the study and order Ecology to reimburse attorneys' and consultants' fees.

The state Office of Financial Management estimated three of these studies would be contested each year and Ecology would probably lose once a year, costing the state about $200,000 annually.

The bill passed, supported mainly by Republicans and rural Democrats.

But Gov. Gary Locke on Thursday gutted the bill with a partial veto, removing the power to take disputes to a judge and get reimbursed for costs. Locke said it could have hurt the budget and set "an undesirable precedent" by barring appeals of administrative law judges' decisions.

The bill he signed simply requires Ecology to disclose all information about models used and data collected for pollution studies, and allows dissatisfied parties to complain to the Ecology director and get a written response.

Ecology and the federal Environmental Protection Agency had pressured Locke to cut the controversial section of the bill, saying it could slow the pollution study process. A court order requires pollution studies and cleanup plans be completed for all the state's polluted waterways by Dec. 31, 2013. If the state isn't getting the job done, the federal government will do it -- something nobody wants.

Local hostility

Ecology spokeswoman Sheryl Hutchison praised Locke's partial veto, and said the original bill would have hampered the state's effort to do pollution studies. She said the Pacific County dispute has more to do with local hostility toward environmental regulations than any systemic agency problem.

"The degree of distrust and enmity coming out of that county is so distinctly higher and more intense -- they're really in a category by themselves," Hutchison said.

But Hamilton and Pacific County don't stand alone.

Officials in nearby Lewis County said they experienced similar frustration with Ecology during the study of the Chehalis River. Local governments there also hired a consultant to study pollution in the river and paid for an attorney to negotiate a settlement with the agency on a cleanup plan. But they didn't go away happy.

"It was very expensive," said Chehalis City Manager Dave Campbell. As a result of the settlement, the county improved its sewage treatment to reduce pollution, and sewer rates increased by about 50 percent.

Bill Lotto, executive director of the Lewis County Economic Development Council, said he is now convinced Ecology needs an attitude adjustment.

"People simply wouldn't listen to reason," Lotto said. "The problem in Pacific County is exactly the same as ours ... You feel like government is doing things to you, not for you."

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