Thursday, June 30, 2011

More Coal Politics: Appearance of Fairness, Local Land Use and Elections

The issue of appearance of fairness has generated some interest in regards to the proposed coal terminal at Cherry Point, Washington. Jared Paben at the Bellingham Herald asks, "Should candidates for County Council give their opinions on the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal?" 

If one looks at only RCW (Revised Code of Washington) 42.36.040 one would readily conclude that candidates can give their opinions. RCW 42.36.040 states "Prior to declaring as a candidate for public office or while campaigning for public office as defined by *RCW 42.17.020 (5) and (25) no public discussion or expression of an opinion by a person subsequently elected to a public office, on any pending or proposed quasi-judicial actions, shall be a violation of the appearance of fairness doctrine"

However, RCW 42.36.110 states "Nothing in this chapter prohibits challenges to local land use decisions where actual violations of an individual's right to a fair hearing can be demonstrated". 

I posed this question regarding Section 110 to a reputable attorney who had previously cited Section 040 as a simple answer that council candidates can give their position. He noted that Section 110 has not been used in an appellate decision to invalidate a county land use decision. But he did go on to say "I believe it’s there to assure that in an egregious situation, the courts can act".

The Municipal Research Council (MRSC) says this about Section 110: 

"Even though some conduct might not violate the statutory provisions of the appearance of fairness doctrine, a challenge could still be made if an unfair hearing actually results. For instance, although RCW 42.36.040 permits candidates to express opinions on pending quasi-judicial matters, if opinion statements made during a campaign reflect an intractable attitude or bias that continues into the post-election hearing process, a court might determine that the right to a fair hearing has been impaired even if no statutes were violated. 
The safest approach: avoid any appearance of partiality or bias.
Because it is often difficult to sort out the many functions of local decision-making bodies, a clear line cannot always be drawn between judicial, legislative, and administrative functions. If the proceedings seem similar to judicial proceedings then they probably warrant the special protections called for by the appearance of fairness doctrine." 

So opinions offered by candidates may come down to how egregious statements are for or against the coal terminal. My attorney friend offered some statements that he felt might be viewed as leading to an appearance of fairness issue and some that might be acceptable. The example he gave of unfairness was a bit over the top, "I don't care about the law, I oppose or I am in favor no matter what". But then some candidates can say goofy stuff and that is likely why Section 040 was written. The acceptable examples probably would not be acceptable to people that really, really want to know candidates positions and sounded mealy mouthed.  

I am not sure anyone really knows where the line on appearance of fairness from campaign statements lies. Court decisions on non political statements have brought some clarity. Stuff like financial gain, or secret meetings outside the record or telling people participating in the hearings they are wasting their time. But thus far nothing on statements made during political campaigns.

I can think of three reasons for the lack of court cases.

1) Since the Appearance of Fairness doctrine was developed by the courts a number of new land use laws such as the Growth Management Act have gone into effect that reduces the politics on land use decisions. There is still plenty of room for politics on land use policy, but much more precise local codes and processes constrain local electeds when they have to make land use decisions. The good old days of arbitrary decisions are no more. The end result could well be that someone running for office would say "I fully support the coal terminal at Cherry Point" only to find that the county staff and Hearing Examiner recommend denial as the permit does not meet the code or even more likely conditions the permit so heavily that the terminal would never be built. That council member would then have to some how figure out how the Hearing Examiner and staff were wrong and convince at least 3 other council members to follow. My own experience with that process even when it turned out I was right went down 6-1 wa-supreme-court-rules-in-favor-of-fire.   

2) Most elected officials are routinely briefed on Appearance of Fairness matters and most believe in being fair anyway. During any quasi judicial process in which I took part, great pains were followed to appear fair and when bias of any sort is expressed ahead of time it is usually by accident or out of ignorance and usually the official in question would recuse themselves. I know that I stepped aside twice when I was on the Council because I knew too much about a particular quasi judicial issue and that information was not part of the record and I felt unable to not be influenced by that information. Council members will routinely give statements before hearings that despite some accidental conversation they can still decide in an unbiased manner.

3) It is likely very rare that a quasi judicial issue becomes a campaign issue so the opportunity to test the apparent forgiving language of RCW 42.36.040 may not have taken place in the past. While no appellant court has overturned a land use decision based on appearance of fairness issues related to statements made during a political campaign, my attorney friend did not indicate that a case has ever been brought forward on this issue.

The appearance of fairness doctrine was initially established in Washington State by the courts, not the State legislation. RCW 42.36.110 appears to recognize this. 

The MRSC makes a number of recommendations regarding appearance of fairness including, "Strive to preserve an atmosphere of fairness and impartiality—even if a given decision may seem to be a foregone conclusion," and " Make sure decisions are made solely on the basis of matters of record."

Not bad advice for any community leader. Particularly when a community faces a divisive issue. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Field Work: Freeway and a Lone California Poppy

Not all field work is glorious geology problems. Monday started with crawling around in a basement and crawl space of a 90 year old masonry building evaluating foundation settlement. I then drove to "field" jobs in Kent, Lynnwood and Edmonds. Lot of time on the freeway. While entering the freeway at a freeway light meter east of Edmonds I spotted a California poppy growing out of the space at the base of the concrete land barrier.

Lone California poppy
Lack of centered picture resulted from keeping my eye on the road ahead

There were no other poppies anywhere in the area. I began looking for them as entertainment on my way back north and never saw another one. California poppies like droughty locations and I have noted them elsewhere along the freeway. So in my traffic addled mind I speculated if this lone poppy is the northernmost I-5 poppy. I will have plenty of opportunities to make that determination.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Coal Politics Comes to Washington and Wonky Process and Diplomacy (update)

Update: I may have overstated the applicability of appearance of fairness so I made a few changes to the post as noted via underlined text or strikeout. I suspect that there is more to this than what I have received by one attorney so far. 

Coal politics has come to Washington State, particularly in northwest Washington in Whatcom County and southwest Washington in the Longview area. Coal has been a powerful force in U.S. regional politics for a long time. In Washington State Coal mining has taken place in a number of areas including Bellingham, east King County, Cle Ellum and Centralia. Most of these mines closed many years ago. The last mine in Bellingham closed in the mid 1950s. Centralia was the only area with a significant open pit coal mine and that mine continues to operate. Centralia also has a coal fired electric power plant, but that plant is slated to close in a few years.

With coal being a fairly minor presence in Washington State combined with plentiful hydro power, coal politics has been a minor issue in Washington politics. But the proposed coal terminals first in Longview and now in Whatcom County have brought coal politics to Whatcom County and Cowlitz County and the State of Washington.

I previously posted on this issue: coal-terminals-in-washington-state, coal-terminal-preemptive-strike, and cherry-point-coal-terminal-update. There has been plenty of excellent reporting in Whatcom County on the issue by Bellingham Herald reporters John Stark and Jared Paben both in the paper addition as well as on line with an article last week on Whatcom County's decision to require the coal terminal project proponents to file a new shoreline major development permit and new major development permit whatcom-county-gateway-pacific-terminal-story-with-ssa-attorney-comments,  read-the-letters-in-the-county-decision-on-the-gateway-pacific-terminal-shorelines-permit/, and a compilation of State of Washington communications regarding the project a-peek-behind-the-scenes-as-state-agencies-review-gateway-pacific.

With local elections taking place this summer and fall, coal politics has come to Whatcom County. But it is a tricky thing for those running for office.

County Council:

For candidates for county council this issue is politically very tricky. Ultimately the Council will vote on final approval of the project via the rules for major development projects if it comes to them for approval. Hence, they are faced with an appearance of fairness issue. They really are very much like a jury and their decision is to be based on the record before them and how that record meets County Codes and the environmental impact statement. Hence, Council members have to refrain from speaking their true feelings about the issue. However, based on RCW 42.36.040 candidates are not in violation of appearance of fairness including "Prior to declaring as a candidate for public office or while campaigning for public office as defined by *RCW 42.17.020 (5) and (25) no public discussion or expression of an opinion by a person subsequently elected to a public office, on any pending or proposed quasi-judicial actions, shall be a violation of the appearance of fairness doctrine". So despite the appearance issue, council candidates and for that matter executive candidates may speak their mind.   Difficult for the Council candidates and frustrating for the public that may really, really, really want to know candidate views and really, really, really want to influence the council candidates.  However, another section, RCW 42.36.100 states "Nothing in this chapter prohibits the restriction or elimination of the appearance of fairness doctrine by the appellate courts. Nothing in this chapter may be construed to expand the appearance of fairness doctrine". And RCW 42.36.110 states "Nothing in this chapter prohibits challenges to local land use decisions where actual violations of an individual's right to a fair hearing can be demonstrated". A question for attorneys that is outside my knowledge. 

One sitting Whatcom County Council member likely already got sideways with this issue when he brought forward a resolution in favor of the coal terminal project. He was apparently ignorant of the appearance of fairness doctrine. Whoops.
What follows is a summary of the process county council members face. For some council members projects like this can be a truly awful situation, particularly if they oppose the project. The County administration will do the review of the project application and will then prepare a report for the Hearing Examiner. The purpose of the Hearing Examiner process which includes a public hearing is to make sure that the application meets the criteria of the County Code. The way to look at it is that the Hearing Examiner makes sure that the County planners properly followed the code and interpreted the application correctly. The hearing examiner acts as a judge of the law and the application for the project meeting the criteria set forth in County codes.

Once the application gets through the Hearing Examiner process it is forwarded to the County Council and  the Council has three choices:

1) Make a final decision on the application based on the Hearing Examiner recommendation with such modifications that the council deems appropriate. The Council is very constrained on what is appropriate)

2) Send the application to the Planning Commission for additional hearing and a recommendation before making a decision  as in number 1 above.

3) Set their own public hearing before making making a decision as in number 1 above.

Any significant modifications outside the legal parameters are not allowed and if they take place are readily challenged in a court appeal. And this is where it is an awful situation for some council members.  If the project meets the criteria to be granted a permit the council really can not alter the permit or deny the permit even if they do not like the rules they very well had nothing to do with setting as the rules governing the project were set some time ago.

What are the rules, from Whatcom County Code 20.88.130:

 The major project permit shall be issued by the county council when the applicant has established that the proposed major development:
(1) Will comply with the development standards and performance standards of the zone in which the proposed major development will be located; provided where a proposed major development has obtained a variance from the development and performance standards, standards as varied shall be applied to that project for the purposes of this act.
(2) Where the project is conditionally permitted in the zone in which it is located, the project must satisfy the standards for the issuance of a conditional use permit for the zone in which the project is located.
(3) Will be consistent with applicable laws and regulations.
(4) Will not substantially interfere with the operation of existing uses.
(5) Will be served by, or will be provided with essential utilities, facilities and services necessary to its operation, such as roads, drainage facilities, electricity, water supply, sewage disposal facilities, and police and fire protection. Standards for such utilities, facilities and services shall be those currently accepted by the state of Washington, Whatcom County, or the appropriate agency or division thereof.
(6) Will not impose uncompensated requirements for public expenditures for additional utilities, facilities and services, and will not impose uncompensated costs on other property owned.
(7) Will be appropriately responsive to any EIS prepared for the project.

It is possible that a clever council member may be able to get the majority to make a substantial change counter to the Hearing Examiner's recommendation, but it has been my experience that it is rare unless the Hearing Examiner made a decision that the staff opposed in which case the staff will have an alternative presentation to the council. I was once on a panel that altered the final draft of the EIS in order to better support our position as the original EIS drafters did not share our interpretation of a significant impact on a couple of issues. But in that case we had control of the EIS. In this case the Council is not in charge of the EIS. Hence, Council members would have to be able to clearly demonstrate with supportable findings found in the record flaws or failures in mitigation.

Which brings up the other election to county government.

County Executive:

Of all the positions that are important in regards to major development projects, the County Executive is far the most important. But again the Executive candidates can't not show favoritism. They must demonstrate that they would oversee the review of the project in a fair manner. For big projects like this one there are numerous administrative decisions where discretion can be applied. One area of discretion is the scope of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and the oversite evaluating the impacts and mitigation. The scope of the EIS may be established before the election is over, but that scope and candidate views on the scope will be a good way to judge the candidates on this issue. And again this position is much more important than the council.

Mayor of Bellingham:

A friend pointed out that the next mayor of Bellingham might be determined by an issue that the mayor has no authority on. As the position has no legal role, mayor candidates and for that matter city council candidates can pretty much say whatever they want.

Though the mayor may have no authority on this project, the mayor may be able to influence those that do have some authority. One mayor candidate, Dan Pike, has already come out strongly opposed to the terminal project after initially being tentatively supportive bellingham-mayor-region-needs-jobs. The other leading contender, Kelli Linville, has also come out opposed to coal.

With no authority, it would appear on the surface not to matter what the mayor's position is. However, the mayor is a political leader and may be able to have influence on County leaders. The question may then come down to diplomacy. What is the best approach for influencing the legally binding process the county must follow? The current mayor up for reelection sent a letter to the Governor asking the state to take the lead on the EIS. The State has no authority to take the lead unless the County requests the state to do so. The letter further argued that the State is much better equipped to handle the EIS. The County response to this letter was to send a letter to the Governor outraged at the mayor's letter. Now imagine being in the Governor's office and getting two letters from the same area of the state basically pissing on each other (for a lack of a better term). Yikes.

And regardless of this diplomatic kerfuffle, Is it better to have local control of the EIS or state control of the EIS? Did this letter make any friends with the very people you may want as your friends (the County) if you oppose the project?

City Council:

Like the mayor, city council members have no authority on this issue and can say pretty much whatever they may want. The current City Council sent a letter to the County simply asking that a broad range of impacts including traffic impacts and train impacts along the rail route be considered as part of the review of this project. I suspect the Council being a process oriented body has a good grasp of the process and has behaved in a diplomatic manner. No toe stomping with a respectful letter of request to the county.

It is an election season; and style and process and making a difference on the landscape may not matter nearly as much as Coal Politics.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Lake Whatcom and a Special Thanks to Dennis Jones

Setting good policy and its impact on the land is about people. If we only looked at land and policy setting from a strict land perspective, it would be easy to develop smart sensible land use policies. But people are part of setting policy as well.

Lake Whatcom is the drinking water source for half of Whatcom County and the entirety of Bellingham. Unfortunately at one time the land around the lake was nearly all privately owned so protecting the lake has involved people - a lot of people with a lot of different interests. Over the past 20 years significant land use policies and decisions have come up on Lake Whatcom: Land transfers, zoning changes that reduced development potential, land purchases, development regulations, lake specific forest regulations for the public land, and rules for motorized boats. Many of these tasks were exceedingly difficult and I found myself in the middle of them as a member of the County Council and as a geologist.

No matter what the specific policy issue on the Lake, Dennis Jones was there to testify. He was always positive even with County Council members that were obstructive or with city officials that were passive. And had great follow through. After a policy was voted on and he would often be at the next meeting to say thanks. Due what I felt were severe problems on the lake I proposed a development moratorium for the lake until the Council could complete development of appropriate stormwater and development regulations. This was not a popular move, but it passed. I was invited to a meeting with a fairly hostile crowd to answer questions and take my required beating. Dennis Jones was there. He mellowed the crowd out better than anyone else could have. It was brave but also a kind thing to do and I will always appreciate what he did and said at that meeting. It made a huge difference to not only me but the public and in the end for much better policy.

Dennis certainly did not come across as a fighter, but the last time a Lake Whatcom issue was before the Council, he was there. He was clearly ill. He was a greater fighter for the lake. He symbolized about as well as anyone I have ever know what good land use policy is about people. Thanks Dennis.

Dennis R. Jones, 66, passed away peacefully at home on June 20, 2011. He was born April 9, 1945 in Burbank, Calif., to Reynard and Helen "Jerry" (McGowan) Jones. High school sweethearts Dennis and Heidi married on August 20, 1966, in Los Altos, Calif. Dennis was a loving husband, father, and grandfather. He was a teacher and a business owner, and spent the last decade of his life as a community activist. A passionate man, Dennis' pursuits included soccer, sailing, and working to better his community, especially in his efforts to preserve the water quality of Lake Whatcom. Dennis is survived by his loving wife of 44 years, Heidi, daughter Dianna (husband Daniel) Murray of Seattle and their children Alek, Clark, Miki, and Kyler, son Eric (wife Jocelyn) Jones of Olympia and daughters Spirit and Teagan, son Simon (wife Tahney) Jones of Seattle and their son Alex, son Stefan Jones of Seattle, and sister Teresa (husband Neal) Cabrinha of Saratoga, Calif. In recognition of their compassionate care for Dennis, memorials may be made to Whatcom Hospice. A celebration of Dennis' life will be held at Westford Funeral Home at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 26, followed by a reception across the street at Westford's Broadway Hall. You may view photos of Dennis' life and share memories with the family at Westford Family Funeral Home & Cremation

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sick's Stadium, Lowe's and Rainier Valley Redevelopment

Lowe's store on Rainier Avenue, Seattle

I was in Seattle earlier this week and heard a bit of buz about a proposal to rezone the Lowe's home supply store on Rainier Avenue in the southeast part of the city. The rezone proposal is apparently coming from the city as part of a plan to increase development density in this part of the city. Large box stores are more typically seen in suburbs and freeway interchange areas on the margins of cities, but this Lowe's store is in an urban neighborhood and . This is an area of Seattle where a significant amount of redevelopment has been taking place in part because Sound Transit has built commuter rail in the area, improvements to Rainier Avenue particularly to the north of this area towards downtown and the relatively affordable homes and apartments combined with less expensive and shorter commutes. Beyond that there area a number of urban centers that that are very appealing that have redeveloped along Rainier Avenue.   

There is a concern by residents of the area about losing an important anchor store. I know from living part time in a different part of Seattle a few years ago caused me to have to adjust my shopping habits as ready access to a variety of stores was limited and getting certain items could be very time consuming driving through urban traffic.

Sick's Stadium (Seattle Archives)

In addition this site has some significant history for Seattle. The site occupied by the Lowe's store was the former site of Sick's Stadium or Sicks' Stadium depending on the year. The stadium was used for many years by Seattle's minor league baseball team and for one year was the home of a major league baseball team, the Seattle Pilots. The Seattle Pilots single season in Seattle was a disaster. The stadium was too small and had inadequate facilities. By the end of games the water pressure was so low that visiting teams had to return to their hotels to shower. In addition the weather was terrible with many drizzly, cool cloudy days that were not conducive to baseball. Jim Bouton, a pitcher for the team chronicled the season in the famous book Ball Four. Reading the book revealed lots of problems with the team.  The team failed and the next year they were in Milwaukee as the Milwaukee Brewers

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Columbus, Washington and Wood for Steam Boats on the Columbia River

Former Columbus, Washington

Just north of the Highway 97 Columbia River crossing and below Maryhill is a stretch of orchards and farm fields along the river shore. This area was settled before the arrival of Sam Hill and the construction of Maryhill. For one thing this low bench above the river area would have been an ideal location for First Nations settlement. When the Lewis and Lewis and Clark Expedition passed this area they noted many villages along the river as the river provided abundant fish for food. At that time (1805) there were probably significantly more people living along the river than today. One challenge the expedition had in this area was the lack of wood available for cooking purposes and on occasion they were obliged to purchase wood from the First Nations villages that they came across.

A small post First Nation community called Columbus was located at this site in as early as 1880. This small community traded in the very product that the Lewis and Clark Expedition found wanting in the area - wood. Steam powered ships moved goods up the Columbia all the way to Lewiston, Idaho on the Snake River. These low draft ships needed wood for firing their boilers. A trip from Columbus to Lewiston required 170 cords of wood. Not far downstream of this site was Celio Falls which effectively blocked ship passage and importing wood via ship from the more forested areas to the west. To the east there is no forest so this was the spot to get wood. Oxen teams would haul wood from the forests near Goldendale located to the north down the steep road to Columbus. 

Over time this operation probably pushed the forest edge around Goldendale back. The forest near Goldendale is a mix of oak and ponderosa pine with Douglas fir and a variety of other trees at higher altitude to the north.

With the arrival of rail, the steamboat shipping began to decline. What steamboats remained were then able to get coal from rail shipments to the area and the wood trade at Columbus came to an end. The timber harvest in the high country near Goldendale did not end, but the end use of the wood products shifted to lumber products.  

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sam Hill and "Where the rain meets the sun"

When I first moved to Washington State On the way to my new home in eastern Washington (DT pointed out he thought I moved) my first good look at my new landscape included a bit of Sam Hill's legacy in Washington State. We had driven down into the Columbia Gorge meeting the river at Biggs, Oregon. Looking across the big river at my new home state I was struck by the huge size of the Columbia River, the treeless hills, and expansive fields of golden wheat stubble. We also spotted Sam Hill's Maryhill mansion on the bluff across the river.

Sam Hill's path to financial fortune started in Wisconsin where he routinely sued the newly built railroads for killing farmers' cows and over eminent domain claims. James Hill, the president of the Great Northern Railroad (no relation at the time) asked Sam if he would be interested in working for the railroad. Sam declined but said he would like to work with the railroad thus getting a piece of ownership at a time when railroads made a group of people very wealthy and Sam indeed became very wealthy. Sam Hill later married James Hill's daughter Mary.

Sam Hill fell in love with the Columbia River Gorge and in particular loved the setting "Where the rain meets the sun". He had big dreams for the site and began building his mansion. Unfortunately his wife was not so keen on the idea and the utopia he envisioned was never completed. However, Hill left a lasting legacy in the Columbia River Gorge. The old mansion houses his art collection including a collection of Rodin sculptures gifted from the Queen of Romania. After a period of mismanagement and lack of funds in the 1980s, the mansion has been fixed up and is a frequent stop for tourists that are now also attracted to the new wineries in the vicinity. 

Hill also built a Stonehenge replica as a memorial to Klickitat County soldiers killed in World War I. He also spearheaded the construction of the first highway in the lower gorge helping make the gorge a famous tourist attraction. This attraction later led to the area being designated a National Scenic Area. However, Maryhill is outside the Scenic Area and hence the wind turbines on the sides and ridges of gorge in this area. Hill had a fair bit of impact on my current home area in Whatcom County with the construction of the Peace Arch at the Canada-U.S. border crossing in Blaine and as a primary investor in Seattle Gas and Electric - a company that for a time mined coal from the Blue Canyon area at south Lake Whatcom  park-store.

Sam Hill was a bit eccentric and eclectic in his tastes and visions and Sam Hill: The Prince of Castle Nowhere John Tuhy (1983) suggests that he was manic-depressive as an explanation of a number of odd projects Hill pursued and abandoned. Maryhill can be easily viewed as a monument of folly standing alone in an empty landscape. I sometimes think that Hill may have fallen in love with the place on a rare calm day and it may have taken awhile before he realized the problem with the location: it is very very windy. But for those of us that lived in the treeless windy expanses of eastern Washington, the fact that a wealthy tycoon of the early 20th Century viewed eastern Washington as a possible utopia always gave us some satisfaction.     

Sam Hill Memorial Bridge

The Peach Beach area and former townsite of Columbus below Maryhill

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Columbia Gorge and Wind Power

Wind turbines on the high plains of north central Oregon.
A line of turbines can be seen on the distant horizon along the the Horse Heaven Hills in Washington State  

Crane working on a turbine. The green field is winter wheat that will be harvested in August

On my last trip east of the Cascade Range I got a close look at the new wind farms east of the Columbia River Gorge. The Columbia River has carved a gap through the Cascade Mountains. The general flow of air in Washington State is from west to east. The gap created by the Columbia River allows for an area of concentrated air flow through the gorge to eastern Washington and eastern Oregon. This flow of air is further enhanced during sunny weather. As the warm sun heats the dry air in eastern Oregon and Washington the air rises creating a strong pressure gradient from west to east through the Columbia River Gorge. The gorge is famous for its high winds and an entire culture of wind lovers in the form of wind surfers has developed in the gorge communities. The town of Hood River is the center of this activity and spin offs such as Full Sail Ale have developed.

The gorge is designated as a National Scenic Area and wind turbines are not allowed as they would diminish the scenic value of the gorge. But just outside of the Scenic Area hundreds of wind turbines have been constructed. The Scenic Area ends just east of Wishram, Washington. On the high bluffs east of Wishram is the area where the wind turbines begin. Due to the topography and wind flow there are more turbines on the Oregon side of the river. But turbines are located on the Washington side of the river and follow the ridge line of the Horse Heaven Hills nearly to Walla Walla. A wind farm has been proposed just north of the gorge near Hood River on a ridge just outside the Scenic Area.

Columbia River at Biggs Junction and the Highway 97 Bridge. Note white caps on the river.
The cliffs in the foreground and across the river were formed during the Missoula Floods that filled the entire gorge in this area. 

With high water levels in the Columbia River system this year, the wind farms have been having trouble getting the electric energy generated to buyers. The hyrdo power turbines on the dam systems have been running at near full generation capacity to keep the rivers low and not to spill water. Although passing through the turbines is hard on small salmon, the nitrogen saturation of the water when spilling water over the dams is hard on the fish as well. When I crossed the river last week I observed that John Day dam was spilling water. The result is the demand for electricity is being more than met by the hydro dams at least for the time being and the wind farms are not able to sell all their power particularly during low demand periods.

Turbines on the Washington side of the river upstream of Biggs Junction

Spinning turbine from behind a ridge

I got a chance to listen to a turbine. Noise issues have been raised with wind turbines. For my simple experiment I was mostly out of the wind on the back slope below a spinning turbine. There was still some noise from the wind blowing at about 30 mile per hour. There was a very faint hum and swish from the turbine from about 400 feet away. I could not hear it when in the car. But noise propagation can be tricky and my single experiment is purely anecdotal.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Demographic Shifts - York Neighborhhod and North Central Oregon

My neighborhood went through a bit of a demographic shift last week. A number of years ago we had a block birthday party for the six 6-year olds on the block. It is not quite the same mix but we saw six graduates last week. This group combined with other kids that have grown up in the hood and recently left means our summers won't be filled with the noise of children playing through the yards. A new infusion of kids will likely come along, but for the time being the children population in the immediate hood has declined significantly over the past few years.

The Grant Street 6

Lined up on a glacial scoured ridge of Chuckanut Sandstone in Bellingham's York Neighborhood

John hands out coupons for York Neighborhood apparel at Nelson's Market

After first hand watching the demographic shift in my own neighborhood I traveled to the east side of the Cascade Mountains and pondered demographic shifts as I passed through various communities. Certainly there has been large influxes of population in in some towns and cities, but not all. Several towns that once served a significantly more populated area than today have declined in population. Demographic shifts in small communities are more obvious than in cities and in the dry climate east of the Cascade Range old buildings remain long after the populations they once served have left. 

Abandoned school

Abandoned church

The hotel and cafe in Shaniko, Oregon are vacant and for sale 

Old Shaniko Post Office

I will note that Shaniko looked better than I recalled from past trips. A labor of love by people trying to maintain the buildings of the old town. Someone had fixed up the old hotel and cafe. The small communities in north central Oregon are not short of money. Wind farms, regional landfills and high wheat prices have been a boom for the local economies and tax rolls.

New fire equipment at Grass Valley, Oregon

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Follow up on Port of Bellingham Disproportionate Cost Analysis

I previously posted a modified chart used by the Port of Bellingham for costs of the cleanup alternatives bellingham-bay-cleanup. In that post I noted that if additional analysis or information indicated my adjustments were substantially off the mark, I would modify my modifications. This effort was to do a quick Disproportionate Cost Analysis was in response to the Port and Department of Ecology's so far declining to do the analysis at least officially. I did receive some comments from a Port official that pointed out that the cost for dealing with the dioxin tainted sediments would be increased for not just the preferred alternatives. That comment is correct so here is my adjusted modified chart with an explanation below.  

Amended cleanup showing dioxin tainted sediment dredging areas

The volume of sediment in Area 1A and 1B (outer waterway) is 113,000 cubic yards. This new cost will need to be added to Alternatives 5 through 8 equally. I do not think the added cost to Alternative 4 will be as high as the material would not require the effort of burial beneath the marina but simply used as additional fill in the ASB. An assumption but I will assume the added cost to alternative 4 is $5 million versus $50. There will be no impact to costs of alternatives 1 through 3 as Puget Sound Disposal was never contemplated in these alternatives.

Area 5B (ASB shoulder) will impact alternatives 3 through 7. For 3 and 4 the impact will be very modest as both 3 and 4 can simply use the material as fill in the ASB. Alternative 8 is not impacted as this area was proposed for dredging and landfill disposal already so the increase to Alternative 8 will be less than the assumed (for now) $50 million increase.

It should be noted that there are other sites that require dredging that are not part of this cleanup. The Port is proposing dredging part of the existing marina and these sediments contain dioxins as well at levels that exceed standards for Puget Sound disposal and the levels even exceed soil cleanup levels for unrestricted use on upland property. The Port is proposing placing that sediment as a cover over an existing municipal garbage landfill area along the south shore of the aerial image above as a means of controlling water infiltration into the garbage material. Other work on the landfill will be required at some future date.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Horse Heaven

Horse Heaven Hills

I have been traveling and took this picture in the Horse Heaven Hills this week. The Horse Heaven Hills are a continuous set of east-west trending ridges that extend from the Cascade Range to the Blue Mountains across southern Washington. As can be seen in the picture, these hills are aptly named. The hills supported large horse populations for local First Nations including the Yakimas, Cayuse, Umatilla, Walla Walla and Nez Perce. Even today on the western end of the hills a remnant herd reported at 5,000 horses (wild-horses-and-prairie-in-sky) roams these hills. The hills are green very late this year due to the higher rainfall and cool spring temperatures.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Juneuary and Some Field Pics

As Cliff Mass expresses it so well why-we-suffer-with-low-clouds I experienced Juneuary yesterday on my trip to the Olympic Peninsula and other points south. Long day. I made back to town to provide a bit of testimony on a proposed gravel deposit zoning change to the Planning Commission and a meeting of the County Flood Advisory Committee. More on that later, but posting may be limited for a few days with lots of family events.

Approaching Port Townsend

On days like yesterday it looks like the paper mill in Port Townsend is the source of all our clouds

Work involved a slope stability assessment, a stormwater/drainage inspection on a landslide area and a foundation inspection for bearing and lateral soil parameters.

Foundation in a mix of till and ice wasting units

Soft sediment deformation mid way up a slope with unopened California poppies 

Shallow slab failure off of a very compact glacial advance outwash sand.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Hazards and Flood Work at the Local Level

I have some community service work this week. Late this afternoon I am meeting with a citizen group regarding planning issues.

This evening I am providing a geologic perspective on hazard planning following a presentation from a Red Cross representative at a neighborhood meeting. The neighborhood is outside any flood zones and built primarily on bedrock. A relatively safe place to live, but that doesn't mean all will be dandy when the surrounding areas have severe damage. I'll be touching on floods, landslides, volcanoes, faults in the vicinity and the big fault on the coast.
On Thursday I have a Whatcom County Flood Advisory Committee meeting. The primary issue we have is to provide advice on revisions to the County Flood Code. These revisions are mandated by FEMA to reduce flood damage risk and to meet a biological opinion regarding the protection of endangered salmon stocks. The update must be done in order for flood risk properties to be eligible for FEMA flood insurance. Failure to do so means much higher flood insurance rates or no insurance at all.

We also will discuss levee vegetation. The Army Corp of Engineers has established new standards for having levees qualify as Corp Program levees. If a levee is in the program and meets the Corps standards, the corp will repair the levee with only a relatively modest financial contribution from local sponsors. The problem is getting levees in the program and meeting the vegetation standards and levee maintenance requirements is a bit daunting and expensive. Some of the committee members want to greatly expand the number of levees in the program, but local dike and flood districts do not have nearly enough money and they are turning to the County government to fund the upgrades and maintenance.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Lower Snake River - A Landscape of My Past

I just started reading a book on the Snake River. Starting the book brought back memories of my time on the Snake River. For a period of time I lived near the lowermost part of the Snake River near where it joins the Columbia River. At one point I drove across the lower end of the river every day on the way to work at the Wallula meat packing plant wallula-gap-and-john-mix-stanley. The winter I worked as a meat cutter, the lowermost Snake River froze over solid.

The lower Snake flowing from right to left and joining the Columbia on the left.
Notes denote a few of my hangouts along the river

The lower most dam on the Snake River, Ice Harbor Dam, was completed approximately the same time I moved with my family to Kennewick. If there was a dam with a power house and a tour anywhere in our vicinity, my father wanted to see it. He was a mechanical engineer and designed power plants so when Ice Harbor opened for tours we drove out to see the dam for my first experience of the Snake River.

Later, when I was in high school I got to go on a tour of the dam during turbine maintenance. The dam operators lowered each of the students down into the penstock via a small steel cage on a cable to see the blades connected to the turbine. It was awesome to be in the bowels of the dam knowing that the steel penstock closure on one side of the "room" was holding back a wall of water and sprays of water from the tiniest of holes along the edge of closure sprayed in on us. We observed pits in the steel of the turbine blades from the cavatating pressure on the back side of the blades. Someone asked, "What happens to the fish?" We were told they passed through without problems and on their return used the fish ladder which we visited as well. As I remember it some of us were a bit skeptical about the fish going through the turbines and being alright. But at the time it was early in the dam's operation and the numbers on fish returns were early yet.

I had several friends whose family's owned power boats and I got to water ski on the Snake frequently during the hot summers. Typically we would put in on the Columbia River at Kennewick. The Columbia is a cold river compared to the Snake. I was of the view we should not waste gas motoring to the Snake without skiing. I would attempt to start to ski from the dock and would ski down the Columbia to the Snake. By the time we neared the Snake my feet would be numb and entering the Snake felt like a hot tub. At that point I would let go and others would have their turn in the warm waters of the Snake.

We would hang out on the islands at the lower end of the river and try a little fishing. Occasionally we would go up to the dam and entered the concrete lock to be lifted up to the slack water behind Ice Harbor Dam. Amazing that you could get a free ride through the lock, but when the dams were built the power loss was considered cheap and the Army Corp did not want to interfere with river navigation even for small recreational boats.

Ice Harbor Dam with Levy Landing and the cliff jump

We also drove out Levy Landing Park to picnic or drive dangerously on the roller coaster like road. Billy Mays and I swam across the river and back a couple of times. Neither of us were great swimmers but we had endurance and Levy Landing was all about being young and risky. A short distance downstream of Levy Landing was a backwater between the rail line and the shore with a warm pool of water and 35-foot high basalt cliffs plunging into deep water. I initially thought jumping off those cliffs would allow the opportunity to briefly experience what it is like to fly. Perhaps that is what others experience when they jump off cliffs, but mostly it felt like falling and if you didn't control your body right the impact with water was not pleasant and would leave bruises. I have not made the jump in a while and am not sure about access. At the time there were occasions when someone would back a pick up to the edge so that the tail gate could be used as a diving board.

Delta area where the muddier Snake mixes with the Columbia

Lisa took this shot of the delta area with the Horse Heaven Hills and Jump-Off-Joe in the distance with a brush fire blackened area.

I also did a lot of fishing on the lower Snake in the delta area. My guide was Mike Fish a good mate and yes that was his name. He knew the ins and outs of all the fishing holes in the delta area and what kind of gear was required for each hole. At the time I was only vaguely aware of the lay of the land in the delta. This was the time before Google Earth. But as can be seen much of the delta was far from natural, with old abandoned rail lines and likely some dredging for ballast in the former gravel beds now drowned by water backed up water from McNary Dam downstream on the Columbia River. Great fishing and I always came home with a load of catfish and perch. We occasionally tried our hand at sturgeon on the main stem just below the dam but alas I have yet to experience the thrill of catching a sturgeon.

The mouth of the Snake River where it joins the Columbia was once a great gathering place for First Nations peoples all over the Columbia and Snake drainage areas. Lewis and Clark encountered this gathering during the late stages of the salmon harvest. The expedition had tired of eating salmon during their trip down the Snake and traded for dogs as a food source.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bellingham Bay Cleanup - How is the Port's Cleanup Plan Doing? - Chapter 5

For readers into deep policy on the Bellingham Bay and Whatcom Waterway Cleanup this is the last chapter for now.

The Port's cleanup plan of capping most of the mercury contaminated sediment in the waterway and bay and excavating the ASB in preparation to converting it into a marina was initially estimated to cost $44 million. However, the Port cost estimate must be altered because of updated dioxin rules for sediment disposal sites in Puget Sound.

The US Army Corp of Engineers recently updated standards for in water dredged sediment disposal in the Salish Sea. Port facilities have to periodically dredge to keep shipping lanes open. The Corp has identified areas in the Puget Sound and Slaish Sea where dredged sediments can be disposed. The Corp developed new dioxin rules for dredge disposal sites that preclude using those sites if dioxin levels of the dredged sediments are above certain levels. This new standard will impact how dredged sediments will need to be managed. In addition Ecology has changed its sediment standards for dioxins in line with the new information used by the Corp.

These new standards have significantly impacted the costs and approach to the Port of Bellingham's cleanup plan for Bellingham Bay and Whatcom Waterway and the Port recently submitted an amended cleanup plan to Ecology

Amended cleanup plan (Ecology)

The new dioxin standards means that some of the sediment that the port wanted to dispose of in open water areas can no longer be disposed of in that manner and some additional areas that were to be capped now will need to be dredged. The Port's new plan with Ecology's tentative approval is outlined in the above picture. The new proposal is to excavate the ASB to a greater depth than needed for a marina and disposing the dredged sediment in the ASB followed by capping the dredged sediment and then opening the ASB to the bay for use as a marina.

This amended approach has been estimated to more than double the original estimated cost of the cleanup from $44 million to over $90 million. During the public comment period for the proposed amendment several citizens suggested that Ecology conduct a new Disproportionate Cost Analysis. A reasonable request given that Ecology had determined that an alternative cleanup plan estimated at $74 million was "not practical" and "incremental costs are substantial and disproportionate to remedy benefits".  At the public meeting the Port and Ecology did not indicate they were interested in doing such an analysis.

Given that response, I did a rough analysis using the diagram the Port and Ecology used during the review of the original Port cleanup plan. At this point I should add that I am of the opinion that the Port and Ecology very much need to do this analysis given that the cleanup plan is hugely expensive and will involve Port tax dollars, MTCA funds from state taxes and will have profound impacts on how a large area of the waterfront redevelopment progresses. I still hold out some hope that the Port and Ecology will do this analysis. In the interim I did a quick and dirty analyses of my own and would gladly stand corrected if more detailed analysis shows my estimates are substantially off the mark.
Port's Cost and Benefit Chart for Proposed Cleanup Options
Heavy dashed lines and red numbers added by me

I posted the above chart from the Port's cleanup plan on a previous post. I placed numbers at five locations on the chart and discuss those areas of the chart below.

It should be mentioned that the Georgia-Pacific's Alternative J cleanup approach most closely resembles Alternative 4 in the chart. I was not able to fully resolve exactly how comparable Alternative J was to Alternative 4, but it is reasonably close. Remember Alternative J entailed dredging nearly all the contaminated sediments in the waterway and bay and placing the sediments in a portion the ASB. The Port Alternatives 5 and 6 (noted as preferred on the chart) involve primarily capping of the sediments in place and dredging the ASB as a marina. I added new lines on the chart to reflect that new amended plan will involve disposal and burial of contaminated sediment beneath the marina. I also take a somewhat different interpretation on some of the values the Port and Ecology used on the original chart that in my opinion a more accurately portrayal of the actual values.

Number below correlate with the chart above.

1) In the port chart the remaining contaminated subsurface sediment is shown with the dashed blue line. Alternatives 1 through 4 according to the Port leave lots of contaminated sediment with Alternatives 5 onward removing significant amounts. However, the Port is counting as contaminated sediment all of the material in the ASB. At this point in time the ASB is not sediment as it is an upland site. Hence, the chart could very legitimately be drawn differently as shown at the number 2.

2) As explained above, the ASB is an upland site and the material in the ASB therefore is not sediment. Alternatives 1 through 4 all assume that the ASB remains an upland site. The thicker blue dashed line has been added to the chart to illustrate this different interpretation.

3)The benefits are presented with a line on the chart that references a Table 7 MTCA benefit ratings. The ratings are in many regards subjective and several of the benefit ratings have nothing to do with cleanup. One example would be that the ASB use as a marina is ranked as a higher benefit than the ASB being used as an upland site for development. Certainly marinas have benefits, but so do 37 acres of level readily developed waterfront property with a seawall that prevents lateral spreading in the event of a major earthquake. Ask different people and you will likely get a different view of which is more beneficial. The thicker dashed lines are my subjective benefit analysis using the same chart where equal benefit was given to 37 acres of developable land (alternative 4), the marina, and the continued use of the waterway as federal shipping channel.

4) This line shows the cost. Since the chart was developed, the port has found that the costs of Alternatives 5 and 6 are well over 100% higher than they initially anticipated and the added heavy green line reflects that the costs are now in the $100 million range.

5) The Port has recently proposed altering the preferred cleanup plan. As such the amount of contaminated subsurface sediments will essentially remain the same. The sediments will now be buried in an aquatic disposal site underlying the marina.

The new higher costs leave a significant degree of uncertainty to exactly how the waterway and bay cleanup will proceed. If the plan is significantly altered there could be large changes in water front redevelopment plans. The information that Puget Sound Energy has no intention of closing a gas turbine electric power plant and the increase in rail freight passing through the water front area combined with a different cleanup plan will impact the future landscape of Bellingham's water front.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Cherry Point Coal Terminal Update

Another Bellinghamcentric post, but I thought I'd do a short update on Washington State coal terminal issues with my Bellingham slant as to where the coal terminal action is currently.

I did a couple of posts on the coal terminal situation in Washington State in February coal-terminals-in-washington-state and coal-terminal-preemptive-strike. Since that time the proposed coal terminal in Longview has been withdrawn and the community resistance to the Longview terminal project has apparently grown. In Whatcom County SSA Marine has been running an intense PR campaign for a terminal that has yet to submit an application.

Last evening a public event was put on by the City of Bellingham to hear what issues people may have had regarding the project. John Stark at the Bellingham Herald reported on the event HERE. At least in Bellingham, there appears to be very strong opposition. I went to the meeting and it appears that this project is facing some of the broadest and strongest opposition I have seen for any potential development project in this area. I was unable to get in the building as there was a large overflow crowd.

Mr. Stark quoted a local labor union leader Mr. Warren (new retired) who has come out strongly in favor of the coal terminal including being pictured and quoted in advertisements in favor of the coal terminal. Mr. Warren was clearly agitated at the strong opposition. It can not possibly be a pleasant situation for him and a few other community members that have been advocates for the coal terminal. I spoke with him outside after the meeting. He wanted to assure me of two things: he really wants those jobs and he wants a full environmental review.

The problem he faces though is that SSA has thus far indicated that not all of the environmental impacts that some would want to include in a review of this project should be applied to the project. Just one major impact that SSA stated that they felt should not be included is the impacts from the rail traffic - a big deal on a local issue as the trains must pass through Bellingham immediately next to an area the City would like to see redeveloped. Other communities will be impacted by the increased rail traffic as 30 one-mile long plus coal trains day would pass from Spokane south through the Columbia Gorge and then from the Portland area up through the lowland of western Washington to Cherry Point. I am fairly sure SSA will not be too keen on having CO2 emissions included in the evaluation of the project either.

Mr. Warren was quoted as saying "environmentalists' hostility to Gateway Pacific has destroyed the alliance between them and organized labor". As I noted in those early posts this issue can be described as "A nice divisive issue to pit community folks against each other". Indeed that spilt has become very real. But based on my experience, local labor leaders may have broken that alliance a long time before this project came along, but that broken alliance is now starkly exposed.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

MTCA Funds Proposed for Marina Excavation - Chapter 4

Tax payers pay a tax into the Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA) fund whenever they purchase gasoline and a number of other hazardous substances. The idea is to create a fund for funding cleanup projects. This tax was passed by a voter approved initiative and was recently upheld by a King County Superior Court ruling that simply dismissed the challenge to the law HERE. The tax provides funding to state and local communities for environmental cleanups, protection and management. 

For local governments faced with contamination issues from past industrial uses and garbage landfills these funds are an important part of cleanup and management of environmental contaminants. Many water bodies around the State of Washington as well as upland sites have been significantly impacted by legacy contamination from past industrial use when concerns about contaminants and the harm those contaminants could do to human health and the environment was not as well understood.  

The Washington State Department of Ecology recommends grant funding from the MTCA fund through grant application programs. And since Ecology is often very involved in cleanup selection process at sites involving local governments, Ecology has the potential to play a key role in funding of cleanup projects. 
The key policy decision in determining the extent and the cost of cleanup of Bellingham Bay and the Whatcom Waterway from mercury contamination from past waste water discharges from the Georgia-Pacific paper mill has centered on the aerated sediment basin (ASB) lagoon. 

The GP plan, Alternative J, called for dredging the contaminated sediment and placing that sediment in part of the ASB creating an upland area at part of the ASB at an estimated cost of $23 million.

The Port has indicated they would prefer to convert the lagoon to a marina and follow a different alternative to clean up the waterway and the bay. The Port policy on turning the ASB into a marina doubled the cleanup cost with an initial cost estimate of $44 million dollars for cleanup alone. It also means that more contaminated sediments will be left in portions of the waterway and bay covered over with a cap of clean sediment.

The Port's plan was estimated to cost nearly twice as much as the original GP cleanup proposal and would leave much greater amounts of sediment behind in the bay and waterway. And it should be noted that the GP cleanup plan likely would cost significantly less that the $23 million estimated sine a berm would not be required across the ASB unless someone else wants to use the ASB as a waste water treatment site (there have been suggestions of using the site for city stormwater, but I know little about the viability of such a proposal). Without the berm the cost of the GP proposal would be on the order of $15 million.

Half of the cleanup costs are proposed to be covered by state grants through the MTCA fund. Which leads to an interesting policy question: should state grants for environmental cleanup be directed toward a project where the landowner’s decision to create a large boat marina triggers a cleanup requirement and doubles the cost of the cleanup? Ecology and State leaders have consistently supported paying $22 million to support half of the cleanup costs that includes the excavation of a boat marina. Are there other projects around Washington State that have been denied MTCA funding in recent years? What should be the priority of MTCA funding? 

Next: The Port of Bellingham Plan Faces New Problems and Cost