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Be reasonable about port fine, EPA

Post by Cheryl Tucker on Feb. 25, 2010 at 7:43 pm |
February 25, 2010 6:20 pm

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

File this under “No good deed goes unpunished.”

In 2003, the Port of Tacoma bought a piece of property – the former Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corp. smelter site – that no one else wanted because it had hazardous waste issues. The port has spent more than $5 million cleaning up the property and hauling out tons of waste, planning to put the site to work generating jobs as a shipping terminal. It plans to spend up to another $5 million to complete the cleanup.

But because the port missed some paperwork deadlines involving a fraction of the property, it faces a hefty fine – it could be $231,600 and possibly much more – from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The kicker here is that the fine involves only a half-acre of the 96-acre site – and that half-acre was cleaned up by Kaiser before the port even bought the property. The paperwork the port was late on involved its guarantee of being able to afford the cost of any future cleanup needs and monitoring of the half-acre – a cost the port estimates at about $300,000 over the next 20 to 30 years.

Given the many sites in the region that await cleanup, it’s outrageous that a fine would be assessed against an entity that has actually stepped up to the plate and invested millions of dollars doing just that. And it’s not as if this is a fine against a private company that is dumping toxic waste or failing to clean it up. This would be one public agency taking taxpayer dollars from another public agency.

It’s actually unclear whether the port did anything substantively wrong. The port claims the paperwork was late because it was tied to the port’s annual financial audit and that an employee of the state Department of Ecology – which administers the Kaiser cleanup on behalf of the EPA – said it would be OK to turn it in after the audit. The port has no record of that advice, and the DOE employee is now retired.

Is the EPA really spending precious, limited public money pursuing such a minor issue? The agency surely has bigger fish to fry than a public agency that has shown a commitment to cleaning up the environment.

Yes, the port has a responsibility to have its paperwork in order. But this minor lapse warrants a slap on the wrist, not the federal sledgehammer.

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