Port Angeles responsible for Ecology projects, lawmakers say

By Paul Gottlieb
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — The North Olympic Peninsula’s three state legislators said the city bears varying degree of responsibility for circumstances that led to $57.5 million to $65.2 million needed for five state Department of Ecology-related projects that the city must complete in the next 20 years.

The legislators also, in varying degrees, sympathized with the position outlined by Port Angeles City Manager Dan McKeen and Mayor Cherie Kidd in an imploring Oct. 30 letter to Ecology that sought state grants for the projects to help offset their impact on local taxpayers.

Copies of the letter also were sent to the 24th District legislators, who represent Clallam and Jefferson counties and part of Grays Harbor County.

State Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, cited past practices — not by present city leaders — that led to pollution in Port Angeles Harbor.

State Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, said cleanup is
not entirely the obligation of Ecology.

State Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, said that while the city bears some responsibility, there is no way the city can go it alone on the projects.

Projects cited in the letter were the combined sewer overflow project, $42 million; landfill bluff stabilization, $12 million to $20 million; a municipal stormwater permit, $2.2 million; the Port Angeles Harbor cleanup, $1 million, and the shoreline master program update, about $500,000.

The landfill bluff stabilization project is the only one that is not required by Ecology, although the state department is providing technical assistance.

“We firmly believe we have a responsibility to address these issues and do our part to make things right,” McKeen and Kidd said.

At the same time, the projects “represent a financial predicament that is difficult to grasp,” they said.

They asked the agency “if there is anything you could possibly do to help our residents by moving the city into a higher funding priority position [for grants]”

Ecology has already contributed more than $296,000 to help the city meet stormwater regulations, McKeen said.

In addition, Port Angeles residents have begun to pay for three projects through increases in stormwater and wastewater rates.

Van De Wege, the fourth ranking Democrat in the House, said the city bears some responsibility for creating the circumstances that led to the projects.

“We want to do as much as we can to help out the city,” he said.

“However, I would point out that the city has had — and I’m not commenting on current leaders — the city is in this position because there have been past practices by the city that have led to this.

“The reason the bay is polluted is because someone polluted it, and the city allowed that to happen.

“Now it is time to pay for those previous decisions, but I think the state will be right there to help them do that.”

As an example of previous decisions, Van De Wege cited the combined sewer overflow project.

The current system allows raw overflow sewage to pour into the harbor, a technique the city has known has “been out of date for decades,” he said.

It is now the most expensive public works project in the city’s history and, according to Ecology, is not eligible for grants.

“There was probably a time when Port Angeles could have fixed this differently or put in a different sewer system,” Van De Wege said.

Kidd said Thursday the city has a history of having a “working harbor” and that times have changed.

“We are in a new era of being aware of cleaning up a lot of environmental issues,” she said.

Van De Wege would not comment on his discussions with city officials over expenses cited in the letter or how the state might help the city cover them.

“At this point, it’s too early to share strategies with the media,” he said.

Tharinger said Ecology has put “quite a lot of dollars” into Port Angeles and the North Olympic Peninsula, adding he has not read the letter in detail.

“It is true that it’s not completely a state obligation,” he said.

“The state needs to do its part, but I don’t think local government is off the hook, either.”

Tharinger said he has met several times with Ecology about different issues and “will continue that discussion when I know more about this.”

Hargrove said he had not seen the letter from McKeen and Kidd but that $57.5 million to $65.2 million in projects “does not seem reasonable” for a city the size of Port Angeles, population 19,000, to bear on its own.

“I don’t know how they could accommodate that,” Hargrove said.

“It just doesn’t seem in the scale of reasonableness at all.

“I’m not suggested that all the responsibility of the city should go away.

“I’m just saying we would be glad to sit and work with them and come up with a reasonable plan to accomplish those things.”

Hargrove suggested there may be other ways to accomplish the same environmental benefits called for in the projects without the overall expense cited in the letter.

“We will reach out to the city is what we will do and find out what’s going on,” he said.

Hargrove does not expect too much movement on addressing the city’s concerns until after Gov.-elect Jay Inslee decides if he will keep Ecology Director Ted Sturdivant or replace him.

“I am expecting he will have some key directors picked hopefully before Christmas,” Hargrove said.

Kidd said Thursday that the city is being “bombarded” with too many expensive projects at once.

“We want to work with Ecology a step at a time,” Kidd said.

“With this economy and the financial struggles citizens are having, we need to be fair and do things gradually,” she said.

“I want to be able to discuss the timing of these projects.”

Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5060, or at paul.gottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: November 29. 2012 5:57PM
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