Port to settle with EPA

Tacoma's port commission Thursday approved a $137,000 payment to settle a long-running dispute with the federal Environmental Protection Agency over late paperwork for a port cleanup project.

If the EPA accepts the settlement amount – there is no indication the agency won’t – the payment will close a dispute that could have cost the port a far larger fine.

The EPA in February proposed fining the port $231,600 for failure to file financial guarantees that it would continue its cleanup of the former Kaiser Aluminum smelter site on the Tacoma Tideflats.

The port had contended that it had the permission of the state Department of Ecology, which administered the cleanup for the EPA, to file those papers after the closing date. But the port didn’t have evidence of that verbal agreement in writing.

The port contended that it couldn’t file the required documents until an ongoing financial audit of the port was complete.

EPA press officer Hanady Kader said she couldn’t speak about the port commission’s action until final paperwork was signed between the EPA and the port.

“We have a complaint that’s open,” she said. “Until the ink is dry on a settlement, I can’t comment.”

The port initially bristled at the notion it should be fined for a procedural mistake when it has spent more than $5 million to clean up the old smelter site and plans to spend millions more to complete that cleanup.

“During the past seven years the port has removed thousands of tons of waste from the site, demolished buildings and cleaned up significant portions of the property. During that time, the port recycled about 170 million pounds of materials from the property. About 80 of the 96 acres so far have been returned to the port-related use to generate jobs and income,” the port said in a statement.

In approving the payment, the port commission acknowledged that the EPA had a valid claim that the port had failed to file the paperwork in a timely way.

“While port officials remain disappointed the EPA pursued any penalties in the face of a demonstrated, long-standing commitment to clean up the community, they recognize that costs related to a legal fight could equal or exceed the settlement amount,” the port said.

“We are ready to settle this matter,” said Port Commission President Don Johnson.

“We want to focus on a more cooperative relationship with the EPA to create economic opportunities for our community in a way that protects the environment,” Johnson said.