The Port of Tacoma and two contractors have agreed to pay a $500,000 penalty and restore wetland habitat at an estimated cost of over $3 million to compensate for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act that damaged valuable Puget Sound wetlands, according to a settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Justice. The proposed settlement has been filed with the court and the public will have 30 days to provide comments, which the court will consider before the settlement is approved.
In 2008, EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers discovered that the Port of Tacoma hired a contractor to raze vegetation and destroyed more than four acres of wetlands in Hylebos Marsh, an area that provided important wildlife habitat and enhanced Puget Sound water quality. The contractor performed the work at the direction of the Port of Tacoma, which had been working to eradicate vineyard snails from Hylebos Marsh with guidance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. An order from USDA stated that plowing and grading to deal with the invasive snail species was acceptable in non-wetland areas only.
At the time EPA and the Army Corps discovered the destroyed wetlands at Hylebos Marsh, the Port also disclosed that in 2006 it directed a contractor to dump over 4,000 cubic yards of urban fill materials—including soil, concrete and asphalt pieces—into nearly two acres of wetlands in an area called EB-1B, located east of Hylebos Marsh.
The Clean Water Act prohibits discharge of pollutants to the waters of the United States, including certain wetlands, except as authorized by a permit. The Port of Tacoma did not have required Clean Water Act permits to conduct work in the wetlands.
"We can’t afford to lose Puget Sound wetlands, especially where they are so scarce. Wetlands provide important water quality protection for Puget Sound and valuable habitat for fish and resident birds," said Dennis McLerran, Regional Administrator for EPA Region 10. "The permitting process exists to allow responsible development that also protects the environment."
Wetland and stream ecosystems play a critical role in Puget Sound water quality by breaking down and processing pollution flowing from upland areas. In addition, wetlands help prevent flooding in communities near Puget Sound and provide important habitat for fish and wildlife species, including endangered salmon species, migratory and resident birds, and small mammals.
Wetlands are particularly important in urban landscapes because they trap, store, and slowly release surface water runoff, precipitation, groundwater, and flood water. In doing so, they filter polluted runoff from pavement and buildings before it reaches waterways.
The wetlands impacted by the unpermitted activity were located adjacent to Commencement Bay, a waterway that has undergone a major EPA Superfund cleanup and an area that has lost most of its historic streams and wetlands.
The Port of Tacoma has agreed to spend an estimated $3 million on restoration projects. This work will restore wetlands on nearly ten acres of Port property, including stream ecosystem restoration and enhancements on nearby Upper Clear Creek where the Port will restore or improve a total of 28 acres of wetlands as part of a larger project. The restoration will protect Puget Sound water quality by restoring wetland functions, including breakdown and storage of harmful levels of nutrients and contaminants, and soil stabilization. The work will also restore habitat for birds, small mammals and fish. The first restoration project is scheduled to begin in August 2013.
The contractors associated with the settlement are Scarsella Brothers, Inc. and WAKA Group, Inc.