Probe of proposed gorge resort site sought

Probe of proposed gorge resort site sought

Two Columbia River Gorge commissioners are asking the Department of Ecology to launch an immediate investigation of possible industrial contamination at the former Broughton mill property near Underwood, the proposed site of a major resort in the heart of the gorge.

Thursday, March 20, 2008
By KATHIE DURBIN, Columbian Staff writer

The request, by Commissioners Jim Middaugh of Portland and Honna Sheffield of Skamania comes just three weeks before the bistate commission is scheduled to vote, after years of hearings and debate, on whether to let the upscale 250-unit Broughton Landing project go forward.

In their Tuesday letter, drafted with the help of the advocacy group Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Middaugh and Sheffield cite a report by the commission staff that says the abandoned site “has a high probability of contamination” from the mill’s operation, and that some of those  pollutants might have entered groundwater just a few hundred feet from the Columbia River. 

‘Improper’ request

They note that Ecology’s own records show one underground tank used to store fuel oil and gasoline at the mill was removed in 1993, after which groundwater filled the hole to within 30 inches of the ground’s surface. At least three other tanks may remain.

Jill Arens, the commission’s executive director, said she was informed of the letter in an e-mail and the idea of contacting Ecology had never been discussed by the full 12-member panel.

“The commissioners did not know about this letter going out,” she said. “There was no commissioner vote. I had no inkling that this was being proposed.”

Arens said that under the process she has recommended to the commission, an environmental investigation of the site is required as part of approval of the master plan for the resort. “So this request is something that would have happened anyway,” she said.

Jason Spadaro, president of Broughton Lumber Co. , called the request for an investigation by the two politically suspect.

“They have blown something completely out of proportion and they are using their authority as commissioners in an improper way that calls into question their ability to judge this decision with impartiality,” he said. “They are trying to generate controversy where none known exists.”

Spadaro said one underground storage tank was removed from the site when the mill was decommissioned, but it’s unclear what happened to the other three. He said the proposed plan amendment that gorge commissioners are scheduled to vote on April 8 makes clear that “in the master plan approval, the applicant has to remove all vestiges of past industrial use.”

He also criticized the two commissioners for lending their names to a position advocated by Friends of the Gorge, a staunch opponent of the resort.

Response will be prompt

Ecology spokeswoman Kim Schmanke said the department would respond to the commissioners’ request promptly.

“Right now what we are trying to do is find all the Ecology staff members who have information about the Broughton operation,” she said. “It’s not clear if we’ve done an initial investigation or not.  If not, the commissioners’ letter will trigger an initial investigation.”
If contamination is limited to underground storage tanks, Schmanke said, Ecology would handle the cleanup. But if broader contamination is discovered, the

Clark County Health Department would be asked to investigate and report back within 90 days. Skamania County, where the Broughton site is located, contracts with Clark County for public health services.

Middaugh, now chief of staff to Portland City Commissioner Erik Sten, formerly oversaw the city’s role in the cleanup of the Portland Harbor Superfund site on the Willamette River. He is running to succeed Sten on the Portland City Council.

He said he was prompted to write to Ecology because the staff of the gorge commission has repeatedly stated that the opportunity to clean up contamination at the mill site is a strong argument for allowing the development.

“I had asked repeatedly, ‘What do you mean by cleanup?’ ” Middaugh said, but the commission’s staff couldn’t give him specifics. “My main concern is that we are being asked to make decisions about allowing new development without having relevant information.”

In her recommendation to the commission, Arens concluded that it would be in the best interest of the scenic area to replace the largely abandoned and likely contaminated industrial site with a resort that would contribute to the gorge economy and enhance scenic and recreational values.

“What was once considered an economic asset when the management plan was adopted is now a potentially contaminated eyesore in the middle of the scenic area,” she wrote.

Not a delay tactic

Arens sent her recommendation to commissioners Jan. 10. But Middaugh said he learned only recently that under Washington law, Ecology has a legal obligation to investigate if it receives credible information about a contaminated site.

“I felt, given the time frame, that speed was of the essence,” he said.  He acknowledged that he asked staff members at Friends of the Gorge to review his letter.

A pending investigation by Ecology doesn’t have to delay a vote on Broughton Landing at the commission’s April 8 meeting, Arens said. “Any assessment that is done is not going to make or break a commission decision.”

Middaugh said his letter was not a tactic to delay a vote. But if the plan amendment is approved, he said, it ought to contain language insuring that development would be preceded by a thorough cleanup of the site.

“I suspect Ecology will respond and the entire gorge community will benefit,” he said.