Bottled Up

Tethys proposal troubles the waters of the Skagit

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Tethys, they say, once had a lock on all the drinkable water in the world. That was some time ago, when Tethys was the goddess of fresh water, which the ancient Greeks knew to be the most precious resource in the universe.

These days you’re more likely to run into Tethys as a corporation with a thirst to build the nation’s largest bottling plant, in Anacortes; however, the Planning Director of that city says we may not call it a bottling plant. It is, rather, a “food grade beverage manufacturing facility.”

Whatever it is, it’s expected to become the size of 17 football fields and drink five million gallons of Skagit River water per day. The CEO of Tethys Enterprises, Inc. says 500 or more people will work there, once the plant’s in full production. It is a very big deal on tiny Fidalgo Island, population 20,000.

The proposal has stirred passions on the Skagit in ways not seen since Puget Power and Seattle City Light tried to build nuclear power plants in the quake-prone Valley, 40 years ago. Critics accuse Anacortes Mayor Dean Maxwell of selling off the community’s peaceable quality of life to a bottling company that has yet to bottle a bottle of anything.

As of this week, the future of the bottling plant lies with the three-member Board of Skagit County Commissioners. They’ll approve, or not, a request by Anacortes to expand its Urban Growth Area and rezone land to accommodate the new industry.

The outcome depends on how thoroughly Skagit County Commissioners eyeball the UGA proposal before they move it along; or how seriously they hang it up with required mitigations.

Confusion continues about how they plan to study it.

A springtime memo from Planning Director Dale Pernula said, “Details of this specific project or another and their potential impacts or merits are not (emphasis added) within the scope of the county’s review.” But after advice from the County’s outside attorney, the scope of the review has shifted markedly. Pernula now says his department will oversee a “limited-scope” environmental impact study under the State Environmental Protection Act.

In what way it will be “limited” remains controversial. County officials say they’ll most likely hold a public hearing and take public comment, to help them decide what needs to be studied. It appears they’ll include human environment issues such as traffic congestion, well as the factory’s impact on wetlands, salmon habitat, birds and wildlife.

The EIS process won’t start until the city and county can agree on who’s to pay for it. It seems unlikely to begin until after the Anacortes mayoral election, in which the Tethys project is bound to be a critical factor. 
Anacortes Mayor Dean Maxwell—both credited and blamed for bringing Tethys to Skagit Valley—is in serious political trouble.

After 20 years as mayor, Maxwell came out of the August primary 17 percentage points behind civic activist Laurie Gere, owner of the Gere-a-Deli restaurant downtown. Last week, the third-place candidate, Mitch Everton, endorsed Gere in a statement implicitly criticizing Maxwell for the city’s lack of a strategic vision of what it wants to be.

Gere has criticized the giant Tethys project and the non-public way it came about. If elected, however, she’ll be legally bound to honor the water supply agreement Maxwell negotiated on his own, with an after-the-fact endorsement by the Anacortes City Council.

“I don’t question the intentions of those who want to bring the plant here,” Gere said in a telephone interview, “but it’s a matter of scale and balance, and deciding ahead of time what we want the city to be. We need a strategic plan for our city’s future, then we could measure projects like this against the plan. But people didn’t know about this Tethys project until far too late.”

He wasn’t trying to hide anything, Maxwell says, but “when you’re the head of a public water utility, you don’t negotiate these things in public. It’s never done that way. I didn’t sign any secret agreement; the City Council voted on it. They unanimously approved what I had done, seven to nothing.”

Some sense of the unknown still surrounds the project. Whatever details the County’s EIS can produce will be considerably more than the company or the Mayor’s office has made public so far. One of the few certainties is the 5 million gallons per day (mgd) of water the city promises to sell to Tethys.

Anacortes City Council member Ryan Walters, whose day job is deputy prosecuting attorney for Skagit County, is the only council member to consistently criticize the water agreement. The agreement was approved before he became a member of the council. Walters complained on his blog Anacortes Ward 1 that council members routinely approve city contracts without knowing what they include. Of the Tethys agreement, Walters wrote:

“That contract was so expertly written that Tethys was able to lock up 5 million gallons of Anacortes water per day, that we’re not able to sell to anyone else, without paying a dime for it over the last few years,” he noted.

Some fundamentals of the plant site emerge from the Anacortes Urban Growth Area application. It’s in a rural-industrial area of unincorporated Skagit County, at the intersection of Stevenson and Reservation roads, near Highway 20, some six miles south of Anacortes, on the abandoned Puget Sound and Baker River Railroad right of way. A site map shows the old BRR line meeting a Burlington Northern Santa Fe route just beyond Rt. 20. The company presumably would restore the abandoned line, to meet a requirement for rail access.

While Tethys kept silent, opponents circulated some jaw-dropping calculations of the plant’s impact on the human and natural environment.

The citizens group Defending Water in the Skagit published an estimate of rail car requirements, based on the reported size of the plant, the known necessities of beverage manufacturing and the amount of water the company has agreed to buy. The founder of the organization, Sandra Spargo, foresees as many as 800 tank cars daily—400 entering, 400 leaving the plant—creating interminable lockups at highway/railroad intersections in the region.

Tethys CEO Steve Winter told the Anacortes Chamber of Commerce last year that a large rail transfer station would be needed on the site, but that a maximum of two trains daily would leave the site.

One edge of the plant site is very near Turners Bay estuary, where the county recently spent $671,000 on a salmon enhancement project in cooperation with the Swinomish Tribe. Maps of the site show it intruding on required setbacks from fish-bearing waters.

Skeptics of the project contend that Anacortes might have paid at least fleeting attention to these and a dozen other environmental, social and economic problems, before contracting to sell 5 million gallons of water per day.

“A project of this size could be ruinous for a small community like Fidalgo Island,“ says author and Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer William Dietrich, a former professor at Western Washington University’s Huxley College. “Its impacts on our schools, housing, roads, traffic, emergency services, law enforcement would be more than Anacortes and the surrounding neighborhoods should have to bear. Did the City of Anacortes even consider these problems?”

Mayor Maxwell may be the Tethys plant’s most visible booster, but he did not invent the idea of selling water for municipal gain. Anacortes has been doing it for 80 years. It has a huge, state-certified right to Skagit River water. The city of 16,000 controls some 55 million gallons per day, plus another 20 mgd in so-called “interruptible” rights. The city consumes—in its broad service area—about 22 mgd. Bellingham, with a population nearly five times that of Anacortes, holds a right to 55 mgd from Lake Whatcom.

Charging some of the lowest water rates in Washington, Anacortes wholesales water to La Conner, Oak Harbor, (through which it serves the Naval Air Station), and Skagit County Public Utility District #1. It sells close to six mgd to each of the two oil refineries—Tesoro and Shell—at the edge of town. The Tethys plant appears to be the city’s thirdlargest water customer.

With all its water riches, Anacortes was not the Tethys directors’ first choice for their first plant. They contacted Maxwell (or he contacted them) following failed negotiations to locate the plant in Everett. Those talks—discussed in Everett City Council sessions and reported by the Daily Herald—broke down over concerns about the reliability of the company’s job estimates.

Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson asked Winter to link the provision of city water to the number of jobs at the bottling plant. Tethys officers called that a deal breaker. A few months later, Winter made public his intention to locate in Anacortes. No one in authority there has told him to put his employment promises in writing.

The Tethys proposal arrives at a time of growing awareness of water as a precious common good, not to be “owned” by anyone and not to be used trivially.

The Tethys fuss takes place against the background of an unrelated water fight now pending at the Washington State Supreme Court; the Swinomish Tribe are suing the State Department of Ecology. The action may force the agency to roll back a water allocation to farmers and rural landowners in the Skagit Basin.

Those thinking decades downstream, with or without Tethys, glimpse a potential, alarming effect of climate change, on the water wealth of the Skagit. A team of earth scientists known as the Skagit Climate Science Consortium sees a steepening curve in the loss of the Skagit’s mountain mothers—the 394 glaciers that serve as the valley’s ultimate cold water bank. Glacial loss in a 20-year period equalled 40 years’ worth of Skagit County water consumption.

Beyond water questions, the Tethys proposal stirs arguments about the relationships between local government and local industry. While most small cities are looking to recruit small businesses as their hope for sustainably better times, Mayor Maxwell advocates what was once the conventional approach: Bigger is better. Better to encourage one large factory (Tethys) than ten little ones, he said.

“The big plant has less impact on the natural environment, the roads and the social structure than ten little industries,” Maxwell noted. “The local government can put environmental regulations on one big plant a lot easier than you can regulate ten little ones.”

The directness of Maxwell’s position lends it some appeal, but disregards Northwest history. The one big industry in town tends to become the de facto local government, directing the political as well as economic life of the community.

“There’s a vision there,” Dietrich said, “but it’s the vision of the imagined Nirvana of the 1950’s mill town.”

Despite repeated attempts to interview Tethys officials for this article, company officials did not respond.

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