Wednesday, February 13, 2008

All that's missing is the signing statement

When a City Hall is run like the White House

Maybe you've heard of Greg Nickels, Seattle's Green Mayor. Maybe because he's singlehandedly done the most to promote his leadership of a national effort to get American mayors to sign a Climate Protection Agreement. It's an end run around the Bush Administration's refusal to endorse the Kyoto treaty.

But there's green, and then there's green. Sure, he's cut the city government's emissions. Although in at least one case a source, a coal-powered electricity plant, was merely transferred to private hands, and continues to pump out the CO2.

Sure, he has an initiative to plant more trees. But city policy also continues to allow developers to cut trees down, if they're in the way of new retail or the crackerbox townhouses going up all over town.

Sure, he's started pedestrian and bicycle master planning -- but woefully underfunded any actual construction. While road projects still get planned by City staff and funded by a general pot of public money, pedestrian-oriented projects must compete against each other for grants to hire planning consultants and construction contractors; residents who want to be safe walking down their street must pay a significant portion out of pocket, as if building sidewalks is doing them a favor.

He's let the Seattle Police buy nifty Dodge Charger muscle cars.

Then there's the love between a mayor and his Joint Training Facility (JTF). Nothing can stand in its way -- not even the environment. A few pieces have appeared online about this rape of a Seattle creek by the city government, in its quest to build a training center for fire and utility workers (1, 2, 3), but a new piece in Seattle Metropolitan is only in the print edition. It's a good history of the case, by local writer Bruce Barcott, and I feel it needs to be excerpted here. Because it makes it clear, once and for all, how Seattle's Green Mayor is more of a brown.

by Bruce Barcott

John Beal loved Hamm Creek. He was its savior and its keeper. In 1979 a doctor told Beal, then a troubled 29-year-old Vietnam veteran, that his attack-prone heart had about four more months left in it. Beal came home to his South Park house, a modest rambler on a dead-end street. He broke the news to his wife, Lana, then got in his car and drove to his secret retreat, a junky ravine off of Des Moines Drive.

Beal often slid down the embankment and sat beside the creek to ease his post-traumatic stress disorder... Beal looked at the creek trickling past him, an open sewer fouled with stinking carpets, rusting refrigerators, tires, garbage bags, swing sets--Hamm Creek circa '79--and set to work. He started pulling trash out of the water. He replaced weeds with native grasses. He spiked fiber baffles in place to catch the oil draining into the creek. Four months passed, and then a year, and John Beal didn't die. Little by little, the dead creek came back to life. Insects returned to its muddy banks. One year Beal planted the stream with salmon smolts. A few years later he watched them return as spawning adults. Hamm Creek came alive, and so did John Beal.

He didn't make much money, and what he had he often poured into the creek. He founded a one-man nonprofit called the International Marine Association Protecting Aquatic Life (acronym: I'M A PAL). He bought a boat, named it the PAL Craft, and patrolled the Duwamish [River] looking for polluters. When he found them, they weren't happy. Beal, cantankerous, rarely backed down. When one factory owner threatened him, he responded: "Take your best shot."

Eventually, Beal was hailed as a miracle worker. King County named him an Earth Hero. The United Nations Environmental Program awarded him one of its highest honors.

Then, in 2004, John Beal's world began crashing down. That summer the City of Seattle began building a new firefighter training center in on an old gravel quarry in South Park. The quarry hadn't been active for years and, as it lay fallow, nature had reclaimed its own. Water pooled into ponds, marsh grasses grew, and by and by a wetland appeared. Beal called it the headwaters of Hamm Creek... At the groundbreaking ceremony in August 2004, Mayor Greg Nickels assured Beal that the training center... would do no harm to the creek. "Hamm Creek will be better for this, John," Beal recalled Nickels telling him. The creek keeper took the mayor at his word but kept a sharp eye on the stream.

Soon after construction began, Beal noticed sediment mucking up a fork of the creek. And that kicked off a protracted battle over the headwaters of Hamm Creek. Over the next three and a half years the City's project would drive John Beal to depression--and perhaps something much worse. It would slap Greg Nickels, America's most-touted green mayor, with a violation of the Clean Water Act...

There were red flags about Hamm Creek from the start. In early 2002 a City consultant reported that at least three parts of the JTF property contained wetlands. In May 2003 geotechnical experts told City officials that water drains on the site could cut off some of the surface flow to the creek by diverting storm water into a culvert. In a March 2004 city permit application, officials acknowledged that they would take care "not to diminish groundwater flows into Hamm Creek" or displace aquatic species there.

John Beal also gave them an earful... Martha Turnbull, who oversaw the project for the City's Fleets and Facilities Department, listened closely to Beal. She knew who he was and what he and Hamm Creek meant to South Park. When Mayor Nickels showed up for the groundbreaking ceremony in August 2004, Turnbull was there too. At least symbolically she was the person who backed up the mayors' assurance to Beal. There was even talk of incorporating an environmental classroom into one of the JTF buildings.

Then things changed. Three months after the groundbreaking, Turnbull's team was taken off the job. The order came from the mayor's office. Nickels worried about the training facility's growing budget and slipping timeline... and he didn't want it turning into a boondoggle. The deputy mayor, Tim Ceis, called in the City's go-to construction project manager, Ken Johnsen, to get the project on track... Johnsen handed off day-to-day oversight on the JTF to his associate Brad Tong. Tong says that "the project was completely designed and permitted" when he took it over. Lana Beal told me Tong and his team had little time or patience for her husband: "They shut him out. Any agreements he'd made with Martha Turnbull were null and void."

"John though he had it all worked out with the city," says Green-Duwamish Watershed Alliance president James Rasmussen. "He was working with the facility's designers, he thought they were doing it right. Then the cost of the JTF started to climb, And so instead of working with him and compromising, [the new project team] just pulled the whole thing."

...Turnbull and then Tong apparently assumed that filling wetlands on the JTF site wouldn't require a permit from the federal Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates wetlands and bodies of water... That would prove an incorrect--and costly--assumption.

...Brad Tong seemed to view Beal as a crackpot who didn't know what he was talking about. Later, in a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Tong complained... "Beal also informed us that temperature changes in 'Hamm Creek' on the JTF site were a direct indicator/predictor of the tsunami that recently occurred in Indonesia..." No one else who knew Beal recalled him espousing such unusual notions.

Things came to a head in the spring of 2005. Beal, growing ever more frustrated, decided to confront the site managers one last time... "He was pretty upset that we were there," says [People For Puget Sound water specialist Heather] Trim. "John told the contractors that they were destroying a wetland without a permit... They basically said, 'we aren't going to talk to you,'" recalls Trim, "and so we left."

A few weeks later, on Earth Day, April 22, 2006, Beal attended the first annual Duwamish Alive celebration. One of the dignitaries on hand was Colonel Debra Lewis, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Seattle District... He marched up to Lewis and said he believed the City of Seattle had violated the Clean Water Act. They're destroying wetlands at the JTF site without a permit, he told her. You might want to check it out.

Ten days after Beal spoke with Debra Lewis, a stranger showed up at the JTF construction site. He didn't ask permission to enter; he barged in and starting taking notes. His name was John Pell. He was an official with the Army Corps of Engineers' enforcement division and he was acting on John Beal's tip.
"When I go out on a complaint like this, I need to first determine whether there is a wetland," Pell explains. Wetlands have three things: wetland plants like cattails and watercress, wetland soils, and water. "In this case I saw all three," says Pell. "And I saw a bulldozer working in the wetland."

The photos he took left no doubt. Water flowed through the site. Spikes of common rush grew out of standing pools. It was a wonder Pell didn't walk away with salamanders in his pockets.

While Pell and his superiors weighed the evidence, John Beal returned to the JTF construction site at least twice to tell Brad Tong, the construction manager, that he'd reported Tong and the City to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for illegally filling the wetlands. Exasperated, Tong sent Pell an e-mail. "Just today... Mr. Beal made another representation that the U.S. Army COE was issuing a stop work order... We are no longer permitting Mr. Beal onto the site. We have attempted to accommodate his interests for a very long time."

As it turned out Beal's information was correct. The previous day corps district commander Debra Lewis had sent a letter to City facilities director Brenda Bauer informing her that Seattle had violated the Clean Water Act. Lewis ordered the work stopped.

A few days later Michael Lamprecht, chief of the corps' enforcement section and John Pell's boss, met with Tong and his boss, Ken Johnsen, and Theresa Wagner, an assistant city attorney, at the muddy JTF construction site. As they toured it, Tong described the drainage field under the parking lot. "Did you have to build that because of elevated water levels?" Lamprecht asked, according to the corps' site visit report.

Tong said yes.

"Then how could someone not think they might have a wetland issue here?" asked Lamprecht.

When they came to the pond, Tong explained how the natural wetland would act as a collecting basin to recycle water from firefighting exercises. If he expected a positive response he didn't get it. "That definitely makes the whole pond impacted," said Lamprecht. "What kind of chemicals are in the substances used to start a fire? What about accelerants?"

Tong and the City officials had no answer.

When you violate the Clean Water Act, they usually don't throw you in the clink. The Army Corps of Engineers wants to preserve wetlands, not create jailbirds... the corps' Michael Lamprecht said if the City came up with a suitable mitigation plan, the corps might be able to issue an after-the-fact permit.

The City hired Marc Boule, an environmental consultant... Meanwhile Fleets and Facilities director Brenda Bauer went to work on the John Beal problem... He was free to file a citizen lawsuit against the City for its Clean Water Act violations, and his years of volunteer work on Hamm Creek made him a motivated and highly sympathetic plaintiff. Such a suit could cost the City hundreds of thousands of dollars and tie up construction for months or years. So Bauer made Beal an offer she hoped he couldn't refuse: "I asked John to join us."

It was a tempting settlement... There was a catch. If he took the money, Beal had to shut his mouth. The settlement would block him from ever suing the City for anything having to do with the Hamm Creek watershed. He couldn't criticize the City's deal with the Army Corps of Engineers or assist anyone working against it... "John couldn't accept those terms" [recalled Lana Beal].

[Seattle neared a settlement with the Army Corps] ...the City had agreed to sell [38 acres next to the JTF] to Lowe's for a new home improvement store. Neither Bauer or Nickels wanted to lose the deal, which would bring millions of dollars to the City and give an economic boost to the South Park-White Center area. So to compensate for destroying one and one-third acres of wetlands on the JTF site, the City agreed to create two and a half acres of wetlands and buffers on the same site and two and a half acres of wildlife habitat on City-owned property along the Duwamish River.

Until the wetlands settlement was adopted by the City Council, it was kept secret from the public, and from John Beal. Beal sued to get access but got nowhere... "He said he wanted to die," Lana Beal recalls. "He'd lost his health. Now he was losing his stream." Not long after, Beal's heart really did break. On Friday, June 23, 2006, he suffered a massive heart attack and died.

By early November the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition was fighting to salvage a shred of John Beal's headwaters. The City Council continued to push the mayor's office to consider additional creek restoration projects, but by then the Joint Training Facility was a fait accompli... On November 6 a compromise was reached: Nickels agreed to earmark $400,000 for Hamm Creek watershed restoration as long as the existing JTF campus wouldn't be touched. That didn't mean the property next door wasn't available; the City's deal to sell the excess acreage to Lowe's fell through prior to the November 6 agreement. Seattle Public Utilities--not Fleets and Facilities--would carry out the remediation projects.
As the facility neared completion last fall, City officials offered to install a plaque at the site honoring John Beal. Lana Beal was insulted by the suggestion. "What kind of sign could they possibly put up? she asks. "What could they possibly say?"

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