Port Angeles council OKs filing lawsuit against park service

PORT ANGELES — While holding out hope for an amicable settlement, the Port Angeles City Council has green-lighted a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Interior over the Elwha water treatment facilities.

The council voted 7-0 in a special meeting Tuesday to authorize City Manager Dan McKeen to file suit in federal court to protect the city’s claims against the National Park Service, a branch of the Interior department, over several issues stemming from the removal of the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams.

City officials assert that the federal government has failed to fulfill its obligations under the 1992 Elwha River Ecosystem and Fisheries Restoration Act to protect the city’s water rights and water supply.

“The claims are primarily related to the government’s obligation to protect the city’s quality and availability of water from the Elwha River,” City Attorney Bill Bloor said.

The council’s action Tuesday was prompted by a looming deadline. Under the statute of limitations, the city must file suit against the federal government by Friday, Bloor said.

Changes to the river since dam removal from 2011 to 2014 have raised the city’s cost to maintain the supply of industrial water and potable water backup from $60,000 to about $600,000 annually, McKeen has said.

The city is seeking an undisclosed amount of “mitigation funding” to help offset the added cost of operating NPS-built water treatment facilities.

The conditions of the transfer of the facilities are also in dispute.

City officials have been trying to reach a settlement with NPS and Interior since 2016.

“Although that negotiation has been proceeding for the last two years, just recently the city had become optimistic that we will be able to work out a mutual settlement of that agreement,” Bloor told the council.

“We haven’t got there yet, but we are optimistic that it’s at least possible that we will come to terms that we can present to the City Council for your evaluation.”

In 2016, the city hired Lane Powell PC, a firm with expertise in federal litigation, to help with the transfer of the Elwha water facilities.

In May, a unanimous City Council approved a $360,000 contract amendment with Lane Powell to prepare a lawsuit.

“We would file litigation, but at the same time it would be our intention to continue the negotiations with the park service and with the Department of Interior to complete a settlement agreement,” Bloor said in the special meeting.

“We would not actively prosecute a lawsuit against the government, at least at this time. We would continue with the negotiations.”

City staff had warned NPS and Interior officials that they intended to seek council authorization to sue, Bloor said.

“They understand, and they will continue to negotiate the settlement with us, even if we do this,” Bloor added.

Council member Cherie Kidd said the city must protect its legal rights.

“I think it’s appropriate at this time that we move on both tracks,” Kidd said.

“We file to protect our interests but continue negotiations, and hopefully we can resume and complete our agreement before too long.”

McKeen told the council that he was “optimistic” that a settlement would be reached by the end of next month.

“I think it’s important to note that the National Park Service is a really crucial partner in the region in a lot of different areas — environmental, social policy, economics,” Council member Mike French said.

“So I’m really hopeful that we can see a resolution on this issue with a mutual settlement, but I do support the motion.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at rollikainen@peninsula dailynews.com.

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