Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tacoma Port Refuses to Pay "Unfair" EPA Fine

Officials at the Port of Tacoma are refusing to pay a nearly $220,000 negotiated penalty levied by the Environmental Protection Agency over the port's failure to provide documents on the cleanup of the former Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp. smelter site.

The port bought the 97-acre Blair Waterway site from Kaiser back in 2003 with the idea to redevelop the property. Under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act program, which is administered by the state Department of Ecology, the port was required to prove that it could pay to clean up the site. Port officials say that the EPA claims that the port repeatedly failed to provide the required documentation by the yearly deadline. The EPA does not comment on pending violations.

Between 2003 and 2008, the port spent millions refurbishing the site in preparation for development of a shipping terminal. In 2008, though, the EPA received directions to begin closely monitoring Resource Conservation and Recovery Act program cases. This led to a federal audit of the state Department of Ecology's RCRA program, including the Kaiser property clean up, and the discovery of the port's missed paperwork deadlines.

After more than a year of negotiations, the port and EPA reportedly failed to come to terms on settling the potential fines from the paperwork violations.

The EPA reportedly wants the port to pay $231,600 in fines, an offer which port officials have refused. While port officials have not specified what they consider fair, they believe the EPA's suggested amount is much too high.

“A small reduction is not what we are after. We are after being treated fairly,” Sue Mauermann, the port’s director of environmental programs, told the Tacoma News Tribune.
EPA officials argue that non-compliance with the paperwork requirements means that more work falls on the shoulders of federal employees to keep the port in compliance--work that adds up in total costs. 

With both sides now at loggerheads over the issue, the next step will likely come in the form of an official fine against the port from the EPA. Ironically, because the port missed some of the paperwork deadlines by up to four weeks, and the fines are based on a $37,500 per day of violation levy, the EPA could wind up assessing an official fine that is much greater than the negotiated amount. If the port continues to fight the fines, the whole affair could wind up in federal court, though instances of such cases going this far are rare.