Are the Emerald City’s local ecosystems suffering outside the limelight of the mayor’s focus on global warming?
Despite Mayor Greg Nickels’ meet-or-beat attitude toward the Kyoto greenhouse gas emissions — an agenda that has spread to more than 600 other U.S. cities’ mayors with carbon cutting pledges and the sort of business friendly global warming summit held here in early November — neighborhood enviro-activists continue to challenge how city government cuts up its own surf and turf.
Nowhere has Seattle’s problem with living its green ideals been more apparent than at two creeks in south Seattle.
Self-appointed Duwamish River guardian John Beal witnessed the destruction of habitat along Hamm Creek to make way for a public safety training grounds. His protestations got nowhere until he brought the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to sue the City’s Department of Fleets and Facility over the new Joint Training Facility on the Duwamish. It was illegally built on wetlands, ruled the Corps in early 2006.
The contention between Duwamish activists and “Fleets” continued for nearly another two years however, piling losses, financial and environmental, cedar-high on both sides.
Almost 200 yards of painstakingly-nurtured back from the grave wetland habitat at Hamm Creek has been razed and replanted from scratch. The Lost Fork Creek that runs to the Duwamish nearby through South Park has lost its headwaters to a Highway 509 drainpipe. And loved ones say Beal, a Vietnam Vet to whom Hamm Creek owes its vegetation and returning salmon, died last summer of depression and a heart attack from the stress.
Meanwhile, the city’s Department of Fleets and Facilities has shelled out $4 million in eco-reparations dictated by the Corps. The Fire Department has not been allowed to use water in the new burn building for its trainees. And the City Council has appropriated $400,000 for further restoration, Richard Conlin’s office announced Nov. 5.
“At this point, we’re just happy everyone is at the table and working together on this,” says BJ Cummings of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition (DRCC). “It’s taken us a year to get here.”
“We wanted to follow the spirit of environmentalism, and not just the letter of the law,” states Councilmember Conlin, who was instrumental in forging the agreement between the Mayor’s office, SPU, and the DRCC.
The original $4 million plan approved by the Corps and Fleets but without community or DRCC input “did more damage than restoration,” draining a creek and razing habitat, Cummings says.
Seattle Public Utilities will use council money to restore habitat and reconnect the headwater of Lost Fork Creek.
Magnuson Park, in northeast Seattle, is also suffering from lax aherence by the city to environmental laws.
There, locals say, federally dictated wetland oversight and mitigation would not have occurred on numerous occasions without citizen watchdogging.
In 1997, Seattle Parks started building ballfields without Corps environmental review. In 2001, it filled four wetlands for an off-leash dog park without gaining permits beforehand. And in 2005, it filled part of Frog Pond wetland when contractors heavily used an old dirt road in the rainy season, expanding it into part of the pond.
The contractors didn’t use a different road because “it would have required a permit,” says Kathy Kincaid of Friends of Magnuson Park.
And though a mitigation plan now meets the letter of the law, the pond won’t ever fully recover.
Sarah Cooke, who was brought in professionally by Kincaid’s group for wetland delineation, explains that “When you fill an area [of wetland], it compacts the lower substrate [of soil], changing water flows and percolation — so these areas will never function the way they did.”
“We give lip service to the environment in the city, but if it’s interfering with something we want to do, then we go on ahead with what we want to do. It’s appalling,” says a Seattle Public Utilities employee.
The Thornton Creek Alliance and neighbors in Northgate claim that in the case of natural headwaters at the Police Department’s North Precinct, city officials changed the wetland’s legal designation, circumventing the law entirely, then cleared the area to expand the police headquarters.
The city insisted the site contained only a stormwater detention pond. Cooke, who lives in the watershed area, brought out a 1996 city land-use map labeling the property an Environmentally Critical Area — a wetland.
In 2002, a city study relabeled the wetlands as “man-made.” In 2003, the springs were redirected down the sewer, permanently drying the pond. Cooke brought out historic aerial photographs documenting the wetlands’ presence before the North Precinct was built in the ’70s.
“Because they were planning to expand the North Precinct, suddenly it’s dried up — they scrubbed [the native vegetation] down to bare dirt,” says Cooke.
The pond has not returned, and the Fleets and Facilities Department has not yet done a replanting program, according to the Alliance.
Laura Nichols remembers waking up on a Sunday morning to find city workers draining the springs down the sewer, bulldozing wetlands, and removing soil, all without a permit.
“It went from a wetland to a mudhole,” she says. “Every spring there were ducks with their ducklings we used to feed.”
Of the city’s work there, she says, “Stonewalling is their technique — they just do what they want.”
Because it’s a small site, the U.S. Army Corps and the Department of Ecology did not intervene, says Janet Way of the Thornton Creek Defense Fund. Kathy Kunz, of the Corps, says the city volunteered in its settlement to include internal training programs teaching its employees about eco-sensitive land use.
But “What happened to no net loss?” asks Cooke, referring to federal stipulations that all destroyed wetlands must be replaced on a one-to-one ratio. “The survival rate for man-made wetlands in the region is not high — it takes 5 to 10 years of continuous stewardship for ecological stability and complexity to develop.
“Why should citizens spend so much of their time fighting the city to uphold its own environmental requirements?”