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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
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
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
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'
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
The bill passed, supported mainly by Republicans and rural
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
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.
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
"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."