Appeals court shifts responsibility for Port Gamble Bay cleanup

PORT GAMBLE — In a decision made late last week by the state Court of Appeals, the Department of Natural Resources will have to carry some responsibility for the pollution caused by the mill operations of Pope & Talbot.

Pope Resources, a Poulsbo-based company that followed Pope & Talbot, had originally been held 100 percent responsible for the contamination at the mill site and in Gamble Bay after the first company went into bankruptcy in 2007.

Pope Resources sued the DNR in 2014 arguing that the agency didn’t do enough to halt the mill’s pollution.

Pope Resources is in the process of paying about $20 million to remove more than 70,000 cubic yards of contaminated shore sediment and wood waste piled in and around the bay. The cleanup is anticipated to be completed in 2017.

Originally, a Kitsap County Superior Court judge ruled in June 2015 that the DNR was not an owner or operator of the mill and therefore was not liable.

But the decision of the higher court last week, over-turned that decision, thus making the state responsible for some of the costs of the cleanup.

That decision was based on the fact that the court felt that DNR, under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, stands to share some of the burden and the cost of the cleanup.

Because DNR controls state aquatic land, and because it allowed Pope & Talbot to conduct log rafting and booming which later were found to have contaminated the bay, the court said DNR is responsible in part for the pollution in the bay.

According to Jon Rose, vice president of Pope Resources, negotiations as to the amount that DNR will pay are ongoing.

“We don’t know yet if they (DNR) will appeal this ruling,” he said. “If they are going to do that, it should be within the next 30 days.”

As a company, Pope Resources is independent of Pope & Talbot, which was the original logging company that worked in the Port Gamble Bay area.

“We are grateful the Court of Appeals ruled in Pope Resources’ favor and held that DNR is also a liable as an “owner or operator” of the Port Gamble Bay site,” Rose said.

He went on to say that the court’s decision “makes clear that our state superfund law applies to any entity that has an ownership interest in or exercises any control over a Site, including state governmental agencies like DNR. Many parties wrote to the Court of Appeals in support of Pope Resources’ position, including private companies, local governments, environmental advocacy groups, the original drafters of MTCA, and even the Department of Ecology. These parties all urged the court to reject DNR’s argument that it should be treated differently than other land managers.

“This result is a great victory for the supporters as well as other private entities and local governments who would otherwise be forced to pay for cleanup of lands that were contaminated by activities DNR authorized. The result is also victory for those who believe that the government should be held accountable for the harm caused to the public from its actions.”

Land acquisition triples Forest Heritage Park

Pope Resources this week sold about 1,355 acres to Kitsap County, tripling the size of Port Gamble Forest Heritage Park.

That park, in north Kitsap County, now becomes the largest park on the Kitsap Peninsula at 1,890 acres.

The $2.35 million purchase was made through the state Department of Ecology and included $1.5 million that the state had budgeted for clean up of the bay and preservation of natural habitat. The rest of the cost was paid through state Wildlife and Recreation Program, the Aquatic Lands Enhancement Account, and the National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Program.

The park is already open to the public and has a network of trails and logging roads used by hikers, runner and mountain bikers.

The purchase deal also includes the agreement with Pope that it can log the property one last time. That will be accomplished in sections that will be logged over then next 25 years. Pope and the county forester will work together to replant the sections as they are forested and will use best practices in replanting more than just Douglas fir trees.

As a section is logged, it will be turned over to the county. The current park acreage will remain open and accessible during logging times.

There remains about 1,400 or 1,500 acres in the area that the county would like to purchase and protect from development. Because public funds have been exhausted, local groups, such as Forterra and local Tribes, are fundraising and looking for donors to the tune of another $3.5 million. This far, they’ve come up with about $600,000.

Pope said the important piece of this is that it happens independent of the company, which has set a date of 2017 to sell.

“This is a big deal,” Rose said. “We’ve owned this property since the 1850s. It’s the birthplace of the company. In 2007, we agreed that we would sell the property and move on and we’ve now been at this for about 10 years. We need people who think conservation is important to come forward and fund raise to help the county make this happen.”