Broughton may aid Ecology in probe of site

Broughton may aid Ecology in probe of site

Broughton Lumber Co. might cooperate with the Department of Ecology in investigating whether old underground fuel tanks have contaminated the site of its proposed destination resort in the Columbia River Gorge.

Friday, March 28, 2008
By KATHIE DURBIN, Columbian Staff Writer

Broughton Lumber Co. might cooperate with the Department of Ecology in investigating whether old underground fuel tanks have contaminated the site of its proposed destination resort in the Columbia River Gorge.

Jason Spadaro, the company’s president, opened the door to a voluntary investigation Wednesday as charges and countercharges continued to fly over how the Columbia River Gorge Commission has handled the possibility that hazardous wastes might be present at its old mill site near Underwood. The mill closed in 1987.

Spadaro said he knows of no contamination. “If we had known of anything, we would have been proactive,” he said.

But now that two gorge commissioners and the advocacy group Friends of the Gorge have demanded that Ecology investigate, he said, Broughton is considering working with the agency voluntarily “just to find out what’s there.”

The commission will meet April 8 in Stevenson and is expected to vote at that meeting on whether to allow a destination resort of up to 245 units on the site of the former Broughton Lumber Co. mill. The property is directly across Highway 14 from a federal fish hatchery and a popular windsurfing beach.

But a rift has opened among the panel’s 12 voting members over whether two gorge commissioners should have taken it upon themselves to ask Ecology to investigate possible contamination of the site.

Skamania County commissioners have demanded that the two gorge commissioners — Jim Middaugh of Portland and Honna Sheffield of Skamania — recuse themselves from voting on the resort proposal because of their alleged bias against the project.

“I think it’s a red herring being thrown out by two rogue commissioners to try to derail the permitting process,” said Skamania County Commissioner Paul Pearce. “How did this become the issue it has become today? It became an issue because these commissioners are against the proposal.”

For her part, Sheffield said she strongly disagrees with the logic under which the commission’s staff has argued that the chance to clean up a contaminated site is a good reason to let the 245-unit Broughton Landing resort go forward.

“Cleanup is the responsibility of the people who did the contaminating,” Sheffield said. “It shouldn’t be a bargaining chip in this development. If there’s contamination, it needs to be cleaned up, period. “

Sheffield says she felt a “moral obligation” to report the possibility of contamination at the site once she learned of it, and so should county commissioners. “They have a responsibility to the health and safety of the community too.”

Though the gorge commission has been discussing the proposed resort for three years, the issue of the underground storage tanks surfaced only last October. That’s when Spadaro provided gorge commission planner Brian Litt with documentation that as many as five storage tanks might be present on the site. In November, Spadaro’s consultant provided Litt with a map showing the location of the tanks.

The underground tanks were used to store fuel oil and gasoline while the mill was in operation. One tank was removed in 1993. Soil tests at the time showed no contamination was present.

Abandoned lumber mills dot the Northwest, and nearly all are contaminated with petroleum products. Some sites also have asbestos, old electrical transformers and lead paint.

Planners incorporated the information from Spadaro and their research into contamination found at other mill sites into a Jan. 10 director’s report, which said the site had “a high likelihood of environmental contamination.”

The cost of cleaning up the Broughton Mill site “could easily exceed $1 million, and could be much higher if hazardous pollutants are found that must be removed,” the report said, adding: “The proximity of the Broughton site to the Columbia River in an area of high public usage underscores the significance of addressing potential contamination and hazardous wastes at the site.”

Jill Arens, the commission’s executive director, recommended approval of a plan amendment that would allow the resort to be developed with some limitations on its size, scale and the length of occupancy allowed by individual unit owners.

One of her conclusions was that allowing Broughton Lumber to develop the resort would provide the company with the revenue it needs to clean up the site and “eliminate a possible significant environmental health issue” in the gorge.

That conclusion was a red flag to Friends of the Gorge. Friends conservation director Michael Lang and his legal staff started digging into Ecology’s records. They learned that when the tank was removed in 1993, the pit filled with water, raising the possibility that oil could have contaminated the soil or reached the aquifer.

Lang alleges that Broughton Lumber Co. officials and the staff of the gorge commission violated state law by failing to disclose to Ecology the presence of underground storage tanks on the site.

“If it’s likely the site is highly contaminated, why aren’t they out there doing something right now?” he asked.

“I don’t think any law has been violated,” said Rebecca Lawson, manager of Ecology’s toxics cleanup program for Southwest Washington. “Just because you become informed of an old tank doesn’t mean you have to notify us. We do need to be notified if there is contamination.”

Ecology already has contacted the Clark County Health Department about launching an initial investigation of the site, Lawson said.

“The purpose of the initial investigation is to determine if more work is needed,” she said. “If we go out and look at it, and we need to do follow-up work, it would go on our list of suspected or contaminated sites.”

A more thorough investigation of whether the site is contaminated will be conducted when and if Broughton Lumber files a formal application with Skamania County to develop the resort, she said.

“When this project becomes more ripe, that’s when the due diligence would kick in,” she said. “And in fact, development is often the incentive to get contaminated sites cleaned up.”

Gorge Commissioner Walt Loehrke of Stabler is one of several commissioners who disagree with the decision by Middaugh and Sheffield to act on their own.

“Why are we dealing with issues that aren’t ours?” he asked. “If there is an issue, the state of Washington Department of Ecology would compel the owner to take care of that issue. This is an effort to invent problems that have not existed before to make the issue more complex than it needs to be.”

“The issue of objectivity and fairness certainly is in question now,” said Gorge Commissioner Joyce Reinig of Hood River, Ore. “They’re both entitled to their own opinions and concerns, but they need to clearly identify that they are only expressing their personal concerns and opinions and they are not representing the commission.”

Reinig, who has served on the commission since its inception, said the rift could impair the commissioners’ ability to work collaboratively.

“We have worked hard to build a lot of bridges,” she said. “When a situation like this develops, it can have an effect on our relationships.”

Jeff Condit, the Portland attorney who chairs the gorge commission, says there is no legal basis for denying Middaugh and Sheffield the right to vote on the Broughton Landing plan amendment.

Because the plan amendment is a legislative decision and not a quasi-judicial one, “commissioners are not prohibited from discussing the amendment with interested parties outside the hearing process and are not required to remain impartial,” Condit said in an e-mail.

He declined to predict what the outcome of the vote will be.

“I think the commissioners are of varying opinions on this application. “