Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Port of Tacoma Settles Wetlands Damage Case

The Port of Tacoma and two contractors have agreed to pay a $500,000 penalty and restore wetland habitat to compensate for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act that damaged valuable Puget Sound wetlands.

The Port of Tacoma and contractors Scarsella Brothers Inc. and WAKA Group Inc. have agreed to spend an estimated $3 million on restoration projects, including restoring wetlands on nearly 10 acres of port property, including stream ecosystem restoration and enhancements on nearby Upper Clear Creek where the port will restore or improve 28 acres of wetlands as part of a larger project.

The case originated in 2008, after the EPA and US Army Corps of Engineers discovered that the Port of Tacoma hired a contractor to raze vegetation and destroyed more than four acres of wetlands in Hylebos Marsh, an area that provided important wildlife habitat and enhanced Puget Sound water quality.

The contractor performed the work at the direction of the port, which had been working to eradicate vineyard snails from Hylebos Marsh with guidance from the US Department of Agriculture. An order from USDA stated that plowing and grading to deal with the invasive snail species was acceptable in non-wetland areas only.

At the time EPA and the Army Corps discovered the destroyed wetlands at Hylebos Marsh, the port also disclosed that in 2006 it directed a contractor to dump over 4,000 cubic yards of urban fill materials—including soil, concrete and asphalt pieces—into nearly two acres of wetlands in an area east of Hylebos Marsh.

The Clean Water Act prohibits discharge of pollutants to the waters of the United States, including certain wetlands, except as authorized by a permit. The Port of Tacoma did not have required Clean Water Act permits to conduct work in the wetlands.

The wetlands impacted by the unpermitted activity were located adjacent to Commencement Bay, a waterway that has undergone a major EPA Superfund cleanup and an area that has lost most of its historic streams and wetlands.

“We can’t afford to lose Puget Sound wetlands, especially where they are so scarce,” EPA Regional Administrator Dennis McLerran said. “The permitting process exists to allow responsible development that also protects the environment.”

The settlement proposal has been filed with the court, and according to the terms of an August 5 settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and US Justice Department, the public will have 30 days to provide comments, which the court will consider before the settlement is approved.

The restoration work is scheduled to begin later this month.