Sued over pollution, Port of Everett works on water quality issues

EVERETT — After an environmental organization sued the Port of Everett last month alleging “repeated and ongoing violations” of water quality standards, the port and the nonprofit said Friday a solution is in the works.

In a joint letter to The Daily Herald, the Seattle-based Puget Soundkeeper Alliance and the port said they are “working in collaboration to remedy an enforcement notice regarding the Port’s Industrial Stormwater Permit.”

“The Port of Everett and Soundkeeper appreciate the opportunity to work together as both our organizations take our leadership and commitment to environmental stewardship very seriously,” says the letter, signed by Port CEO Lisa Lefeber and the nonprofit’s executive director, Sean Dixon. “We hope to have this matter resolved quickly and amicably.”

Soundkeeper’s lawsuit, filed May 31 in U.S. District Court in Seattle, alleges heavily polluted stormwater flowed from marine terminal drainage pipes and outfalls into the East Waterway, a waterfront area in Port Gardner Bay that has already been tainted by decades of industrial activity.

More than two dozen times between the beginning of 2018 and the first quarter of 2022, monitoring reports found water samples exceeded various pollution “benchmarks” — including for pH, copper, zinc and turbidity — set in the port’s state-issued permit, according to the lawsuit.

“These violations have occurred each and every day during the last five years on which there was 0.1 inch or more of precipitation and continue to occur,” Soundkeeper told the port March 28 in a notice of intent to sue.

Permitting data maintained online by the Washington State Department of Ecology confirms the pollution thresholds were surpassed. However, under the state’s permitting system, “exceeding a benchmark is not a violation, and is instead a trigger for the permittee to do something,” department spokesperson Scarlet Tang said in an email.

Tang declined to say if the port has been cited for any stormwater permit violations, saying the department doesn’t comment on third-party lawsuits.

It is one of many such lawsuits filed by Soundkeeper, a water quality watchdog known for taking businesses and localities to court to force compliance — sometimes resulting in millions of dollars for environmental remediation in contaminated areas.

“Under the Clean Water Act, community groups such as Soundkeeper are encouraged to enforce industrial storm water permits managed by the Department of Ecology,” says the joint letter. “Soundkeeper has launched approximately 200 enforcement cases with facilities around the Sound, most of which involved management of stormwater discharges.”

In 2017, Snohomish County settled a lawsuit brought by Soundkeeper, agreeing to retrofit drainage projects near Little Bear Creek and promote stormwater management practices that use native plants and natural filtration processes to purify runoff. The county also agreed to pay Soundkeeper up to $125,000 in attorney and expert fees.

The most recent lawsuit also alleges the port failed to take the proper “corrective actions” required by its permit when pollutants were detected beyond their limits. Such actions vary, depending on the nature and the severity of the benchmark that’s triggered. Examples range from strengthening a facility’s stormwater management plan to adding treatment systems.

The lawsuit also cites lapses in the port’s reporting, monitoring, and other required recordkeeping meant to ensure that pollution levels stay below the benchmarks.

Soundkeeper asks the court to order the port “take specific actions to remediate the environmental harm caused by its violations.” The lawsuit also seeks recovery of the nonprofit’s legal fees and “civil penalties of $59,973 per day of violation for each violation committed by the Port after November 2, 2015.”

A 2021 annual permit report, submitted by the port to the Ecology department two weeks before the lawsuit was filed, says the port took action twice that year after samples exceeded pollution parameters. In April 2021, the port asked its contracted sweeper to cover certain areas more often. In September, it installed catch basin inserts, with filters to absorb metal, in “strategic locations throughout the marine terminals,” says the report signed by Lefeber.

The East Waterway is already a cleanup site overseen by the Ecology department. The port, the U.S. Navy and the state are in the early stages of gathering information about pollution that lingers there from historic saw milling, pulp and paper manufacturing, maritime shipping and naval activities.

The neighboring former site of the Kimberly-Clark mill is becoming a new marine shipping terminal as part of yet another state-mandated cleanup taken on by the port.

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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