Who’s in charge here?
In his latest effort to implant a housing project in Green Cove Basin, developer Jerry Mahan is refusing to provide information that the City needs to review his application. In a letter from his attorney Heather Burgess to the City, Mahan said he would not do any more environmental testing and demanded that the City complete its review without further information. Mahan wants the City to treat this environmentally sensitive and historically contaminated site the same as if it were undeveloped land in downtown Olympia.
This raises the question: does the developer run the City? Or does the City regulate development in the interests of its citizens’ health and safety? Mahan’s team advocating for his project has such close ties to the City and its decision-makers that it’s hard to imagine that our officials will act independently [see bottom of article for contact information].
An environmentally protected area
The Sundberg Gravel Mine at 2200 Cooper Pt. Road NW is located in an area designated by the City of Olympia and Thurston County as environmentally sensitive. For decades it has been used as a place to dump hazardous and solid waste and for log storage.
Runoff crosses Cooper Point Rd. to enter a tributary and wetlands that are the Green Cove Basin, the highest priority watershed in WRIA 13, which includes the Deschutes Watershed.
Water from the site drains to the confluence of two streams, Butler Creek and Green Cove Creek, as described in Mahan’s own consultants’ reports. Ravines from the site head north, draining water across 28th Ave NW directly to Butler Cove on Budd Inlet, about a mile away.
Federal jurisdiction ignored
Green Cove Creek, which flows into Eld Inlet, is a salmon-bearing stream regularly monitored by Washington Fish and Wildlife. Both Budd and Eld Inlets are protected Federal and tribal treaty waters, home to endangered Orcas. Despite this direct connection to waters subject to several Federal laws, including the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, the City has yet to contact the agencies responsible for administering these laws.
Mahan has been violating the Clean Water Act for years by dumping groundwater, stormwater and sediments into the jurisdictional wetlands on-site and off. Mahan’s consultant, Pacific Rim and Soil (2006) pointed out that,
“Any direct impacts to a wetland are regulated by the Army Corps of Engineers (COE)” which “regulates wetlands of any size, i.e. there is no minimum size for a federal jurisdictional wetland. Furthermore, the COE must be notified of all impacts to wetland. If the COE is not notified of a wetland impact prior to the event, the action may be treated as a violation of federal law.”
[In addition] “the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is involved if there are any endangered or threatened animal species in or near wetlands or the project site.”
Olympia has exempted downtown development from review under the State Environmental Policy Act as one of several benefits intended to entice developers to build downtown. The rationale is that downtown development among other things offers multi-unit development, promotes density, provides walkability and brings in high-end consumers.
None of this applies to Green Cove Park. Mahan proposes 181 single-family homes, in a rural setting that would only increase traffic. Ms. Burgess’s letter argues that since Olympia is built on fill, the fact that the Green Cove site sits on decades of fill makes it equivalent.
Far from it. It is well-documented that the Green Cove site was operated variously as a gravel mine, log yard and waste dump with no oversight for 60 years. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) inspection reports from the time Mahan acquired the property in 2006 cite numerous violations, including mining outside the permit boundaries, illegal dumping, and the illegal importation of fill material.
The issue of contamination remains unanswered
For this reason, the City identified additional testing to ensure that no contamination is present. Mahan’s attorney letter refusing to comply stated that “extensive test pits” drilled by various consultants were sufficient. However, pits drilled to date reached only 13 feet deep while the actual mine depth was 35 feet. No testing has ever been done for the toxic waste one would expect from an industrial dump, persistent, bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs) that pose a unique threat to the environment and to public health. Not one of Mahan’s environmental consultants was willing to guarantee the absence of potentially hazardous materials or conditions. All recommended further testing. Several suggested that the uses of the site have “historically been considered environmentally suspect land use activities due to the potential disposal of petroleum or other chemicals within the materials dumped on the site.”
The site is in the extended capture zone of the City’s Allison Springs aquifer and within a mile of more than 60 private wells. Mahan, again, refuses the requirement that he sample groundwater, claiming that the City aquifer is protected by impervious layers. This is disproved by DNR reports showing the presence, from illegal mining, of two perched aquifers that could allow surface water to penetrate to the groundwater aquifer below, along with water bubbling up to the surface from a high-pressure aquifer.
The City of Olympia allowed Mr. Mahan to operate on the Green Cove site for a decade without permits for grading, filling and stormwater construction. Within a month of an October 31, 2019 private meeting with Mahan, the City committed public funds and resources to provide amenities — before it had even completed its review of the project. They bought an adjoining 5-acre contaminated parcel as a “park” whose primary access would be from Mahan’s property.
Much is at stake
The City of Olympia cannot accept Mr. Mahan’s refusal to comply with their requirements, nor bow to his demand—issued as a veiled threat in Ms. Burgess’s letter—that they “timely complete” their review. Not only would accepting this compromise the integrity of the City and its processes, but it would ignore the potential for irreversible environmental and public health impacts, including the health risks of living on top of a hazardous waste dump, the threat of collapsed houses and streets, the possible contamination of groundwater, the further degradation of the Green Cove Basin and its sensitive wildlife, and threats to the Southern Resident Orcas.
Esther Kronenberg and Jerry Dierker are allies and residents of the Green Cove Watershed.
If you believe that no one is above the law, and that the City has an obligation to ensure that homes are not built on contaminated sites in environmentally important areas, please let the City know:
Community Planning and Development
PO Box 1967, Olympia, WA 98507
or call 360-753-8314
Or by email: