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Jul 20, 2007

Fire district repairing damage to lake
Fines, criminal charges for chief still possible


Whatcom County Fire District No. 18 is repairing damage to the shore behind its South Bay Drive fire station but could still face thousands of dollars of additional fines and possible criminal charges for an unpermitted landscaping project.

Chief George Henderson changed the area from an abrupt cliff to a gentle slope on June 28, causing dirt to enter Lake Whatcom. That prompted a $2,900 fine from Whatcom County Planning and Development Services, and investigations by the state departments of Fish and Wildlife and Ecology.

The district, which had no permits for the work, has spent more than $1,800 in repairs so far and signed a contract to pay Bellingham-based Cantrell & Associates $2,250 to develop an environmental restoration plan for the area, according to receipts obtained by The Bellingham Herald through a public records request. A bulldozer was also rented, for $484, for the original project.

Fish and Wildlife Sgt. Russ Mullins said his department has finished its investigation and forwarded the results to the Whatcom County Prosecutor’s Office, which will decide whether to pursue charges.

Despite a motion by district commissioner Socorro Ruiz to

transfer all responsibility for the project to the district, the chief could be charged with an “unlawful hydraulic project,” a gross misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine, Mullins said.

The Department of Ecology could also still fine the district a maximum of $10,000 per day for violating the state’s Water Pollution Control Act. Spokeswoman Shannon Sullivan said the department has received the fire district’s written explanation of the project and will determine in a couple of weeks whether to levy a fine.

Sullivan said the fire district has quickly taken all the required steps to fix the damage, which will be taken into consideration. Ecology has yet to determine how many days the district was in violation.

“Every day there was muddy water in the lake is another violation,” Sullivan said.

With the cost of repairs and fines so far approaching $7,500, Henderson said the district’s commissioners have yet to determine where the money will come from. The district was paying for the original project from a $10,000 capital improvement fund also meant for other projects. The district plans on asking the county to reduce the fine.

Henderson said the project was designed to create a helicopter landing pad for airlifts out of the area and to limit erosion to the bank.

According to the district’s incident reports, it has airlifted patients out of the area twice in the last five years — on Feb. 2, 2003, and on April 25, 2004. Airlifts were on standby several other times.

Despite the district’s few helicopter landings, Henderson said major car wrecks are common in the area and the district must be ready for all major emergencies.

“We don’t know when those sorts of things are going to happen,” Henderson said. “Our job is to make a plan and be ready.”

In the past the district has landed helicopters in the South Bay Drive Station 1 parking lot, but it was decided to create a landing pad in the back because illegally parked vehicles often crowd the area around the boat launch next to the station.

Bob Martin, land use and natural resources manager for Whatcom County Planning and Development Services, said the district has stabilized the area’s soil and is complying with the county’s requirements. But Martin said the county is not certain of the intentions of the original project.

“You don’t create a helipad by changing a flat surface into a sloped surface,” Martin said.

Henderson said the district was planning on adding fill dirt to the slope to level the area for landings until state and county officials told them to stop all work.

The district was also planning to install a dock that a neighbor donated several years ago, but the county has said the dock does not meet environmental standards. Martin said the dock did not allow enough sunlight through to the bottom of the lake.

The district does not own a boat, but Henderson said it sometimes uses private boats belonging to its firefighters or neighbors to transport injured patients on the west side of the lake who can’t make it up the steep slope to South Lake Whatcom Boulevard.

Henderson emphasized that the district has taken every step to comply with the state and county’s requests during the cleanup, even when those requests contradicted each other in the days following the project. Martin confirmed that there was some disagreement among the agencies involved as to the best way to handle the “emergency situation” caused by the project and prevent more dirt from entering the lake.

Henderson said he hopes the district’s prompt response is taken into account when officials look at criminal charges or additional fines.

“Nobody had any criminal intent to damage the lake,” Henderson said.


Coverage area: Six square miles at the south end of Lake Whatcom, including Cain Lake area, south part of South Lake Whatcom Boulevard, and areas along South Bay Drive and Park Road.
Residents covered: About 5,000.
Fire stations: South Bay Drive, Cain Lake Road.
Staff: Paid chief position ($50,000 annually), 13 volunteer firefighters.
Funding: Annual property tax collection of some $250,000 includes emergency medical and bond levies.
Next regular commissioners’ meeting: 7 p.m. Aug. 9 upstairs at Station 2, 431 Cain Lake Road.


Jul 20, 2007

Fire District 18 officials deserve severe penalties


We were shocked to learn that Fire District No. 18 officials cleared land next to Lake Whatcom, causing serious environmental damage to the lake, without seeking a permit or approval of regulators.

Fire district officials cleared land at the south end of Lake Whatcom, pushed dirt into the lake to create more ďlandĒ and floated a small dock on the water. They claim they needed more land in order to land helicopters to transport people quickly in the event of accidents or emergency. The district has airlifted patients out of the area twice in the last five years.

County officials say the work caused significant environmental damage. State officials say that if the district had asked for permits for such a project, they would have been denied.

District officials say they didnít realize what they were doing was wrong or that it would damage the lake.

That is simply not believable. It is unfathomable that district officials didnít know about Lake Whatcomís water quality issues or that what they wanted to do required some sort of OK from regulators. They must have known about the rules and decided to ignore them. Either way, punishment is necessary.

Damaging the lake through building is unfortunate when itís done by an unknowing homeowner. But itís appalling when done by hired leaders of elected representative governments. We urge the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to pursue whatever criminal charges they can to those individuals responsible for the effort. Lake Whatcom is home to several important fish species, including kokanee that are bred in a state hatchery at the south end of the lake.

Unfortunately, the actions of a few fire district leaders are likely to cost district taxpayers a load of money, as well. The district faces a $2,900 penalty from Whatcom County and might face fines of up to $10,000 a day for violation of the state Water Pollution Control Act from the state Department of Ecology.

And the costs will continue to rise. The district has spent more than $1,800 on repairs so far and signed a contract to pay $2,250 to a consulting firm for an environmental restoration plan.

Taxpayers in the district ought to immediately seek to replace the board members and chief responsible for this offense.

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