A proposed material processing facility outside of Enumclaw has some local conservationists worried about how it may affect the Green River and other natural environments.
Ronald Shear, co-operator of Buckley Recycle Center (BRC), is starting the process to relocate his Auburn business to just south of the Bass Lake Complex and along Enumclaw-Franklin Road on Aug. 15.
Buckley Recycle Center recycles land-clearing debris like vegetation, stumps and logs, concrete and asphalt to turn into various agricultural products, like hog fuel, mulch and top soil.
However, Friends of Bass Lake, a local community group, has expressed concerns about the proposed recycle center, citing nearby sensitive environments and Shear’s business history.
“The location of this, next to this natural area, just is not right. It doesn’t make sense to us at all, for a variety of reasons,” said Bernie McKinney, a member of the group and president of the Green River Coalition, a nonprofit preservationist group.
Shear, who said he’s been working with the county for several years to find a properly-zoned area of land that also fulfills county code requirements for a material processing facility, believes his proposed recycling site will have minimal impact on the environment.
“BRC only processes yard debris, land clearing debris and clean wood waste. These materials do not produce pollutions,” Shear said in an email interview. “They are the same materials that are on the site now and in every forest in the state of Washington.”
Shear was able to answer some general questions about the proposed project, to be called Enumclaw Recycle, but was on vacation last week and was unable to provide more in-depth answers.
In general, Friends of Bass Lake is concerned that not enough information has been provided to the county to determine whether Shear’s recycle center would affect the environment.
At the moment, Shear is going through the SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) process, which is how Washington counties determine whether a project directly or indirectly affects the environment around it through water drainage or stormwater runoff, traffic, noise, odor and other factors.
The comment period for the SEPA process ends Nov. 24, though Fereshteh Dehkordi, county senior project manager with the Department of Permitting and Environmental Review, said the department will continue accepting comments after the official end date.
“We are at the early stage of this review and have not completed our initial evaluation of the proposal and sufficiency of the submitted reports and studies for the project,” Dehkordi said. “This permit will be thoroughly reviewed for evaluation of all potential adverse impacts under the State Environmental Policy Act standards before a decision on the environmental threshold determination could be issued.”
In general, Shear said the proposed facility will not significantly affect the environment, and in cases that it will (noise levels, for example), these will be properly mitigated.
“Enumclaw is our community too,” Shear said. “We would not want to harm our community.”
Friends of Bass Lake is not convinced.
One concern is traffic, and how much of it will be added to the Enumclaw-Franklin Road.
Shear’s traffic study used traffic data from June 2016 coupled with trip generation study performed at the Buckley Recycle Center facility in Auburn.
“The daily traffic is estimated at 164 trips for the project,” the report reads. “Overall, the project is not expected to have any impact on the local roadway system.”
Shear said his personal experience on the Enumclaw-Franklin Road agrees with the study’s findings.
“I’ve spent a lot of time out there on that road in the vicinity. I’ve hauled hundreds of loads myself personally out of the Franklin Ridge gravel pit at the end of the road, and there is not much traffic on that road,” Shear said. “We feel like there is going to be very little impact as traffic goes.”
Friends of Bass Lake disagree with the study’s conclusion.
Heather Boren, the group’s media contact, said the traffic study — now more than a year old — was submitted a month before the re-opening of the Franklin Ridge gravel pit, which added “hundreds of dump trucks a week to this road.”
The group is also concerned any water discharge could affect drinking water wells in the area, claiming these nearby wells are fed by “critical recharge areas.”
Wells fed by groundwater sometimes take hundreds of years to make it to the wells through soil and rock, but the soil around the proposed Enumclaw Recycle site is filled with a high level of gravel, decreasing the time it takes water to reach a well to a decade or less, the group claims.
Shear said he requested a study to be done on whether the area should be considered a critical recharge area for wells, and the study was completed while he was on vacation.
While not yet submitted to the county or available to the public, he said the study concludes, “based on scientific research field studies and the interpretation of 160 plus drilled well logs by our licensed hydrogeologist, all wells in the vicinity of the proposed site are producing from a confined aquifer and are not recharged locally. This means this area is not a critical aquifer area.”
Friends of Bass Lake’s biggest concern is how the Enumclaw Recycle facility could affect the nearby Bass Lake Complex, and ultimately feed into the Green River Gorge, since the project site is elevated above the complex.
“This site would drain through the Bass Lake Complex and into the Green River Gorge,” McKinney said in a press release. “This is likely the only native habitat left on the Green/Duwamish. This operation doesn’t belong on the edge of a sensitive habitat feeding the Green River.”
McKinney said the Green River Coalition successfully lobbied King County to spend $20 million on habitat recovery in the Bass Lake Complex and Green River Gorge area, and the Enumclaw Recycle project could put all that work at risk.
Shear’s water drainage report states it is “highly unlikely any runoff is generated from the site,” in both upstream and downstream basins.
Other Friends of Bass Lake concerns include claiming Shear’s noise mitigations are inadequate, and want more information about how any odor could affect the area.
While Friends of Bass Lake believe no material processing facility should be approved near the Bass Lake Complex, the group is especially worried about Shear’s business history, which they say points to Shear not having the environment’s best interests at heart.
Shear has denied these claims, saying there’s more to the story than what’s being presented.
Shear first came up on Pierce County’s radar in 1996 when he operated Shear Transport in Buckley at 26719 Highway 410.
According to the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, Shear was operating an unpermitted illegal dumpsite at that location. The department sent a letter to Shear that March explaining he did not have the proper permits to run a dumpsite, and Shear responded, asking for materials so he could apply for a solid waste recycling permit.
The health department never received an application, and a cease and desist letter was sent to Shear for continuing to operate his unpermitted site.
Violation letters began to pile up as the health department, Pierce County Planning and Land Services, the state Department of Ecology and the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency found Shears “violated a panoply of codes and regulations,” but continued to operate his illegal facility, a 2002 health department site hazard assessment reads.
A fire at the site in March 2002 prompted additional inspections by various agencies, leading to the Pierce County Solid Waste Program to add Shear Transport to the county’s “Dirty Dozen” illegal dumpsite list.
“After repeated court delays, the Pierce County Superior Court heard the case against Shear Transport in June 2002 and ordered the property owner to immediately cease business operations,” the health site hazard assessment reads. “After several continuances, the actual trial occurred on 5.21.03 and the court ruled the property a public nuisance which must be abated.”
The health department’s site hazard assessment ranked the Shear Transport site a Level 4 hazard, on the low end of the 1-5 scale, after finding asbestos in with wood chip material and groundwater samples that contained diesel and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (a carcinogen) above state cleanup standards.
In response to this history, Shear said there was more to the story than what the county recorded.
“We tried to work with Pierce County. We really tried to work with them. It was impossible,” he said. “We couldn’t make any headway there. We were forced out of business by them.”
While Shear Transport was being investigated by various agencies, Shear opened the Buckley Recycle Center at 28225 West Valley Highway North in Auburn in 2001.
A zoning battle between Shear and King County began in 2004, when the county amended its code to “require permitting for operations such as Shear’s, classifying them as ‘materials processing facilities,’” reads a Washington State Supreme Court case ruling.
Prior to the code changes, Buckley Recycle Center was considered an interim recycle facility, “and required no use-specific permitting.”
Shears appealed to the county’s hearing examiner, believing since he was already on the land and beginning his operation, he should be grandfathered into the new zoning rules. The hearing examiner, for the most part, agreed.
The county appealed to the Superior Court, which reversed the hearing examiner’s decision.
Shear appealed to the Court of Appeals, which ruled in his favor, overturning the lower court’s ruling.
Finally, the county took the case to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in the county’s favor, saying Shear should not be grandfathered into the new zoning rules and would need to relocate his business to another area.
“It wasn’t me that picked this,” Shear said in response to Friends of Bass Lake and other groups asking why he’s moving to the Enumclaw area. “It was King County that picked this. We were perfectly happy in the AG (agricultural zone)” BRC was operating in at the Auburn location.
Throughout this court process, Sear said he was working with King County to find a new site that was zoned properly for a materials processing facilities and had all the other county code requirements necessary, which led to his 2016 purchase of the parcels of land being proposed to house Enumclaw Recycle.
After the Supreme Court ruling and beginning to work with King County on a new site, BRC was sued by the Seattle-based Waste Action Project in July 2013 for violating the federal Clean Water Act for unpermitted wastewater discharge.
In October 2015, both BRC and Waste Action Project “verbally notified the court that the case had been resolved and that they would be filing a consent decree for court approval.”
However, the King County Superior Court noted BRC seemed to delay in signing the supposedly agreed-upon consent decree, earning the court’s ire.
“Defendants Buckley Recycle Center… have apparently now attempted to renegotiate terms already agreed upon during mediation reflects a bad faith effort to further delay these proceedings,” the court wrote in an Oct. 5, 2015 order. “This conduct has necessitated court intervention, wasting everyone’s time and resources for a matter that was purportedly settled six months ago.”
BRC continued to push against the Clean Water Act lawsuit, eventually appealing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in January 2017 before eventually signing the consent agreement that March, ending the legal fight.
Signing the consent agreement was not an admission of fault. Instead, it stipulated a timeline for the removal of BRC’s equipment while Shear worked with King County for the permits necessary for the new Enumclaw site, but did not cause his move to Enumclaw, since the state Supreme Court necessitated his move out of the Auburn area four years earlier, Shear said.
Shear added the Waste Action Project lawsuit was just one in a pattern of lawsuits around the state the citizen group uses as a way to get money, not to protect the environment.
“They are a group that goes around, basically sues companies, get money from them, and move on to the next guy,” Shear said. “Nobody has taken them all the way to the end of the process, they just pay them to go away. And that’s what we did.”
BRC ended up owing more than $190,000 in litigation fees to Waste Action Project, another condition of the consent decree.
King County’s permitting department is aware of Shear’s business history, Dehkordi said, but, “the department is obligated to accept any permit application for review if the proposal is allowed in the zone by any one. Through the review process, we ensure that the proposal is designed to comply with all applicable standards and all potential impacts are mitigated for.”
Dehkordi added Shear’s history, “will add to our effort to make sure (if the permit is approved) that adequate measures are developed as conditions of the permit and that Mr. Shear is accountable for any violation of the permit conditions.”
The county’s SEPA determination can be appealed.
CORRECTION: In the print version of this article, it was inaccurately reported Scott Carpenter was president of Friends of Bass Lake. Carpenter is the president of a Friends of Bass Lake group in Minneapolis, Minnesota, not Enumclaw, Washington. This article has been updated.