News

Interests wrestle for restoration project

By ERICA HALL

Staff writer

Two entities are at odds over who gets to restore a Hylebos wetland site, but representatives for both sides think they’ve reached a workable agreement.

About 16 months ago, a Tacoma scrap metal recycling company called General Metals, now owned by Schnitzer Steel, began looking for potential sites to conduct environmental restoration.

General Metals’ recycling center, located on the Hylebos waterway, today has an environmentally safe operation, with ponds and treatments for the oils, greases and chemicals recovered from old cars and machinery, according to Mat Cusma, an environmental administrator for the company.

But 40 years ago, it wasn’t so earth-friendly, he said, and a number of contaminants found their way into the waterway and, ultimately, Commencement Bay.

In 2000, the Commencement Bay Natural Resources trustees, led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, ordered companies located along Commencement Bay waterways, including General Metals, to clean up.

Commencement Bay was designated a federal Superfund site and, for its part, General Metals had to remove sediment from the waterways and find a restoration site to compensate the public for damage to the natural resource.

General Metals contacted Friends of the Hylebos, a mostly volunteer group based in Federal Way, for suggestions of sites that needed help. The metal recyclers also hired consultants and talked to stakeholders to find a site that had a significant need and lined up with what General Metals had to accomplish.

“We were looking for something with a good, strong nexus to the tideflats,” Cusma said.

Over a couple months, Friends of the Hylebos worked with General Metals and looked at several sites that needed work. Together, they decided on a restoration project on six acres of wetland located between South 373rd Street and Gethsemane Cemetery in Federal Way.

Friends of the Hylebos executive director Chris Carrell said General Metals’ proposal was a “golden opportunity” for the west fork of Hylebos Creek. “The center of the chinook salmon universe is Hylebos Creek,” he said.

The creek is situated in the Spring Valley flood plain, where the landscape flattens into acres of pasture grazed by cows and the stream widens enough for returning salmon to spawn.

Carrell said the creek has potential — there isn’t much development surrounding it — but it needs some help. Over the years, the creek was channelized, meaning the natural bends and curves of its banks were straightened, allowing the water to rush downstream more quickly. If the water is carrying gravel or other debris from upstream, it can scour the creek bed where spawning salmon deposit their eggs.

Because there’s so little natural vegetation shading the creek, fry are subject to birds swooping down and picking them out of the water. Eggs and juvenile salmon are sensitive to temperature and without shade trees, the creek’s water can get too hot for them to survive.

Hylebos Creek also needs big logs to help slow down the water and to create eddies, pools and shady spots for young salmon to hide.

As part of its restoration project, General Metals plans to put large logs in the creek and plant native trees and shrubs along its banks. The company plans to fence the property to keep cows from tromping through and disrupting the creek bed, where salmon eggs might be deposited.

The company expects the restoration project will improve habitat not only for salmon, but also for wetland amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, according to General Metals’ project plan.

The site was perfect for General Metals, which needed something big enough to satisfy the responsibility laid before it by the trustees, Cusma said. On top of that, the owner was willing to sell.

“We put it all together and it was almost calling our name,” Cusma said.

But General Metals wasn’t the only organization interested in the wetland.

About a year ago, Sound Transit also approached Friends of the Hylebos, looking for suggestions for areas it could restore as part of a wetland mitigation requirement to restore about half an acre of wetland surrounded by a four-acre easement.

Friends members made suggestions, one of which was the South 373rd Street site, Carrell said.

As Sound Transit was considering its options, General Metals ultimately settled on the site and bought it, though Cusma said the property owner informed General Metals that Sound Transit also had expressed an interest.

Later, Sound Transit decided on the same wetland and sought permits to do its mitigation. When the agency learned General Metals already owned it, it threatened to use its power of eminent domain to acquire the site to continue with its mitigation requirement, Carrell said.

Sound Transit officials didn’t comment after being reached by the Mirror.

Cusma said there’s no way the two sides could share. The portion Sound Transit needs is about 60 percent of the site, he said, and the remaining area wouldn’t be big enough for General Metals to meet its public compensation responsibility.

If Sound Transit used its power of eminent domain, General Metals would have to find another superfund site, Carrell said. Friends of the Hylebos would lose the restoration project the company proposed, which he said would be “a tragedy of the highest order.”

Cusma agreed. “That would just destroy what we’re trying to do,” he said.

Because they’re separate agencies satisfying environmental requirements out of different jurisdictions, Carrell said, it’d be “too complex to combine the projects. One is a superfund liability and the other is a separate agency’s mitigation.”

Still, it doesn’t look hopeless.

Sound Transit and General Metals officials have been meeting to figure out ways to work together at the same site.

As of Nov. 14, it appeared General Metals and Sound Transit had reached an agreement that would meet the mitigation needs of both parties. Cusma didn’t want to release the details last week, but he said the goals of both could be accomplished.

“I am confident we have come to a deal which will work to everyone’s benefit,” he said.

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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