The Gristle

Bottled Up

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

BOTTLED UP: In ways both mirroring and anticipating Whatcom’s debate on coal exports, Skagit County and the City of Anacortes held a series of recent public meetings in response to a proposal to build the largest bottling plant in North America on 38 acres bordering a sensitive salmon estuary near Turner Bay as it empties into Similk Bay on Fidalgo Island south of the city. The proposal would require the annexation and consolidation of 11.15 acres of county land adjacent to Anacortes’ urban growth area, nearly six times the county acreage ask originally anticipated in Anacortes’ 20-year growth plan.

The 1 million-square-foot bottled beverage manufacturing plant proposed by Tethys Enterprises, Inc., was presented to city leaders as a significant engine for jobs creation; however, the plant would also use a tremendous amount of water that would be treated and used at the facility, on the order of 5 million gallons per day (MGD). One million square feet is about the size of 20 football fields and about four times larger than most beverage companies operating today. If built, the Tethys botting plant will consume a large portion of the city’s industrial land supply and water right, thereby potentially limiting the city’s capacity for future economic growth.

In benefit, the plant would generate manufacturing jobs and produce taxable revenues during construction of about $8.8 million, with roughly two-thirds of that amount generated annually through bottling operations, according to city estimates.

In a pattern by now familiar, city leaders signed on early and eagerly for those potential jobs and revenues in the midst of economic downturn.

In 2010, Anacortes Mayor Dean Maxwell and his City Council agreed to a contract where the city would sell Tethys 5 MGD through 2035, with an option to extend through 2040, if the company could secure the rights to at least 30 acres of land with rail access within the city limits or an area that could be annexed. The city then turned to Skagit commissioners for assistance in securing that property, submitting an initial petition to Skagit County for expansion of the city’s UGA last July.

Anacortes currently supplies approximately 22 million gallons of water per day to about 56,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers, according to city documents, with no crimp in capacity anticipated through 2029—a planning horizon six years short of the contract’s minimum duration.

As the city notes, however, “The city’s water system supports the jobs and economy not only in Anacortes but also La Conner, Mount Vernon, Burlington, Oak Harbor, the Port of Anacortes and March’s Point, and it supports national defense by assuring water to the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.” Among those served by city water are farmers in the Skagit Valley, the backbone of the county economy.

For Tethys, though, it’s not just the water, but the capacity to carry that bottled water to market. In a series of emails exchanged as the company scoped the project in 2010, Tethys principals tried to describe what 5 MGD of water would look like:

“It would take over 670 rail cars every day on 7 miles of track to ship the 40 million pounds of water in 10 gallon bags,” visualized Phil Bastien, an attorney for Tethys Enterprises. “That means you would need over a weeks’ worth of shipping packages in stock, stored in a monstrous warehouse or on 4,700 rail cars in a yard requiring 47 miles of track. Then, on the other end, they would have to figure out how to manage 500,000 80-pound bags of water and return the containers within a few days.”

Intending to describe the need for water volume on site, Bastien provided a glimpse into the rail export capacity required for the Tethys plant, a line that eventually links to the BNSF mainline at Burlington—where, according to proposals, trains may battle for daily track space with an additional 18 trains of coal cars moving to and from Cherry Point.

With city officials moving quickly to seal an agreement, Anacortes City Council didn’t hold a public hearing of their own until August, 2012, a month after they’d signed documents with Tethys. The meeting produced, in the words of one Skagit official, “some serious fireworks.” Critics chided Anacortes leaders—particularly Mayor Maxwell—for not allowing more public comment about the proposal and the contract before the city agreed to sign it.

In April, the Skagit County Board of Commissioners received testimony regarding the docketing of Anacortes’ petition to annex those 11.15 acres to the city’s urban growth area. A public hearing was held on April 9. Again in a familiar pattern, commissioners received hundreds of comments from supporters and critics—mostly critics—detailing a great variety of concerns in more than 400 pages of testimony.

“By chipping away one acre at a time,” one La Conner resident told commissioners, “adding one more train at a time, selling one more gallon of water, we throw away our precious valley and change its character forever.”

”The Tethys issue has presented the question of whether the county must conduct detailed environmental review of the underlying project when considering an Urban Growth Area expansion, something that has been the subject of statewide litigation and legal commentary recently,” noted Skagit’s Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor Will Honea. “This takes on heightened significance given that no environmental analysis occurred when [Anacortes] signed the Tethys contract, despite fairly clear law requiring environmental review.”

Noting aspects of preemption and fait accompli by the City of Anacortes, another citizen warned, “By docketing this project, Skagit County Commissioners will essentially deny the citizens of Skagit County the opportunity to participate in one of the largest land use decisions in the county’s recent history.”

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