Editor’s note: The is the final story in a three-part series looking at the issues facing a proposed Northstar Chemical Inc. plant near Sumner. In , writer Steve Powell examined the history of the project and the budding, local opposition. In , he looked Northstar’s generally good record – with one glaring exception.
In Sara de Soto Hoime’s ideal world, the city of Sumner or an environmental group would simply buy out Northstar Chemical’s property, the 14 acres of former yeast factory that’s been slated for a chemical tank farm.
That would make it easy. Every side could walk away happy. But she knows such a scenario is unlikely. With that in mind, she’s planning for a more likely alternative when the plant’s environmental review is completed:
Hoime, an activist who lives next to the proposed tank farm, explained in an email to a local opposition group that it needs to raise money to hire a lawyer to file an appeal if the final ruling doesn’t go their way. In short, they believed that nearby Mt. Rainier -- a volcano -- renders Sumner seismically unsafe for such a facility.
In a prior fight, the group hired GendlerMann of Seattle in 2006 using garage sale funds. The email says they are looking for a band or some other type of fundraising activity. They’ve even discussed buying gas masks and staging a protest to attract media attention.
All of this in opposition to Northstar Chemical’s plan to open a plant on three acres in Sumner, one half-mile north of downtown. The site would be used to store and distribute liquid chemicals used primarily for water treatment.
Northstar officials won’t confirm that they want to build the plant. But they are right in the middle of a state environmental review process that, if successful, would allow them do regardless of the opinion of the locals.
The review focused on four project alternatives: the preferred one by Northstar; a reduced-scale alternative; a long-range alternative; and a no-build alternative.
Comments taken during the process and being studied further pertain to the potential risk associated with toxicity of the chemicals at the plant, and various means by which they could affect people or contaminate natural resources.
One primary issue is the White River, which is 400 feet to the west of the proposed site. Likely, the state will require a groundwater monitoring system will keep plant runoff from polluting the waters, potentially killing off protected species such as Chinook salmon, bull trout and winter steelhead.
Another is a possibility of historic significance. The city of Sumner drilled nearby land for the Central Well project and during testing, found a sand dollar around 400 feet down. Paul Rogerson, Sumner's community developtment director, said it’s estimated to be 10,000 years old.
“It looks like it just came off the beach last week,” Rogerson said of the sand dollar, adding that artifacts found during construction often can hold up projects. The sand dollar is in the hands of a city employee on the hopes it will one day be tested and studied.
Regardless, Sumner residents have been against the project from the start. Within months of the property purchase, Randy Hynek, a city council member, and the Sumner Neighborhood Association held a community awareness meeting.
A few months later the council passed a moratorium on such projects, but “grandfathered" in Northstar when legal action was threatened.
Hoime’s email additionally acknowledges Northstar’s superior capacity to wage a war in the courts. “The city,” she wrote, “is perhaps a little more fearful of Northstar Chemical’s pocketbook than ours,”
Councilman Hynek said his problem with the project is that it is too big and too close to residents. Northstar’s plant on the Tacoma tideflats is a mile from the nearest home, but the one in Sumner would be less than 100 yards away, he said.
Houses line nearby Steele and Zehnder streets while businesses like Sonoco are just to the east and there’s an industrial park to the west on Fryar.
Hoime said the Northstar property is on an industrial site with other potential polluters, but that doesn’t mean, “We have to add to it.” She said the group plans to keep up the fight, to continue to ask questions, to learn what to do if Northstar is approved.
One option could preclude a court fight: A buyout.
Rogerson confirmed the issue has been discussed.
“We’ve been aware of potential buyout costs, and private parties have talked of buying the site, but neither has come to fruition,” he said.
About a year ago the environmentalists heard at a council meeting that Northstar was approached by the city to buy them out, but were told the property owner, Robert Code, wanted “too much.” Hoime had heard the amount was $6.4 million.
That’s double what the Pierce County Assessor’s Office has the property valued at: almost $3.2 million, despite being in a flood plain with critical areas such as wetlands.
“God, yes, we’d love to find an investor,” such as an environmental friendly group like Cascade Land Conservancy or Puget Sound Partnership, Hoime said.
Hynek said a city offer was rejected in the past, but the real estate market has changed now.
“I’m not against buying it, but we have to be conservative with citizen dollars,” Hynek said. “Let’s wait and see where the process gets us.”
And where that is remains an open question. Hoime knows in the end what she wants. “My dream is for it to be beautiful wetlands–a jewel of Sumner."