Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News The industrial water treatment plant along the Elwha River, shown at left in this 2012 aerial photo, is the subject of a dispute between the city of Port Angeles and the National Park Service.

Port Angeles to sue Park Service in dispute over Elwha River water facilities

PORT ANGELES — The Port Angeles City Council has set the stage for filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the National Park Service.

It’s part of a growing impasse related to the historic removal of the Elwha River dams.

In the latest twist, council members last week unanimously authorized City Manager Dan McKeen to have the city’s legal counsel file the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the Park Service if the agency continues to apparently balk on fulfilling the city FOIA public records request.

City Attorney Bill Bloor said at the council meeting Tuesday that the Park Service has not provided contract information being sought by the city on the $25 million Elwha River surface water intake and treatment facilities.

They were built to treat much of the estimated 34 million cubic yards of sediment released by the removal of the Glines Canyon and Elwha dams to replenish the river’s salmon run.

The dams were removed in 2014 in the largest project of its kind in the nation’s history, but the overall river restoration project is ongoing.

The Park Service in February denied the city’s $60 million claim to mitigate the financial impact if the Park Service transfers the plant to the city, as it plans to do.

City officials have said they want the Park Service to provide a fund to pay for facility improvements and the annual operation of the intake system, a cost estimated at $750,000 to $1 million that would include hiring up to three new employees.

The water facilities provide industrial water to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife rearing channel, the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe’s fish hatchery and Nippon Paper Industries USA’s mill.

Nippon is undergoing a transfer of ownership to McKinley Paper Co., a U.S. subsidiary of Mexico-based Bio-Pappel paper products company, a process McKinley officials said would be completed by the end of this month.

Herb Baez, McKinley’s vice president of operations, did not return a call for comment Friday.

The city’s $60 million claim against the Park Service alleged that the federal government “still needed to do more to make those facilities acceptable to the city,” Bloor told council members Tuesday.

“We could not continue to operate them as we operate them now.

“If we take over those facilities, it would be extremely expensive to the city.”

The city still intends to reach a settlement with the Park Service, Bloor added.

The statute-of-limitations deadline for the city to file litigation against the Park Service to cover the city’s costs is around August 2018, Bloor said in an earlier interview.

The city filed a FOIA request for the contract file nine months ago and has received “very little in response,” Bloor said, making it necessary to lay the groundwork for a suing the federal government to obtain the information.

“We think that perhaps by authorizing the city manager to have that authority that maybe the Park Service will be more forthcoming with the records,” he added.

Sally Mayberry, a public affairs specialist with the Park Service’s Denver service center, said Friday the agency’s FOIA officer was out of the office, so she was unable to say how far along the agency is in fulfilling the city’s public records request.

The cost of the restoration project has been estimated at $325 million, but that and a completion date are up in the air, Mayberry said.

“Due to the nature of the ongoing situation, I don’t have any updates to the project completion date or the cost,” she said.

Mayor Patrick Downie, Deputy Mayor Cherie Kidd and Councilman Lee Whetham spoke Tuesday in favor of the lawsuit-filing authorization Tuesday.

“We’ve got the future of our town riding on this,” Whetham said.

The city contends that the Park Service has not followed through on a pledge to maintain the amount and quality of water available to the city and its residents that existed in 1992 under the city’s municipal and industrial water rights under the Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act.

Under the act, the secretary of the interior is responsible for “specific proposals to protect the quality and quantity of water available for municipal and industrial use.”

________

Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at pgottlieb@peninsuladailynews.com.