The ecological goal for Blue Heron Slough, upper right, is to restore tidal channels, marsh, and mud flats by breaching old agricultural dikes as seen at Smith Island at left. Shot on Jan. 15. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

The ecological goal for Blue Heron Slough, upper right, is to restore tidal channels, marsh, and mud flats by breaching old agricultural dikes as seen at Smith Island at left. Shot on Jan. 15. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Settlement is ‘an elegant solution to a 100-year-old problem’

A court agreement requires the Port of Everett and the Navy to make up for past pollution.

EVERETT — A new federal court settlement outlines specific steps to restore salmon habitat in the Snohomish River estuary as a way of addressing the polluted legacy on Everett’s waterfront.

The consent decree that the U.S. Department of Justice announced Monday focuses on the Port of Everett’s Blue Heron Slough project. The 353-acre area will be familiar to drivers who have noticed large earthen mounds off the east side of I-5 between downtown Everett and Marysville. The proposed agreement obligates the port and the U.S. Navy to invest in the habitat project to address historical pollution to Everett’s Port Gardner.

“The Blue Heron Slough project will benefit various threatened species, including the Chinook salmon, which is the primary food source of the Southern Resident killer whale (orca),” said Erik Gerking, the port’s director of environmental programs, in a prepared statement.

Lisa Lefeber, a deputy executive director with the port, called it “an elegant solution to a 100-year-old problem.”

The settlement stems from a complaint filed in federal court by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the state of Washington, the Tulalip Tribes and the Suquamish Tribe. The governments sought remedies under federal and state environmental laws.

The port has been developing Blue Heron Slough for years, separate from the new agreement. It’s designed as a mitigation bank where the port or other developers can buy credits to offset the impact that their developments have on the marine environment. Wildlands, a private company based in the Sacramento area, is the port’s partner for the work.

The settlement will remove more than 70 acres from the conservation bank. About half of that acreage is tied to the Navy’s portion of the settlement, the other half to the port’s.

The new agreement is related to a $3.9 million consent decree over environmental contamination that federal, state and tribal authorities reached in 2018 with three companies that formerly operated on Everett’s waterfront: Weyerhaeuser Corp., Jeld-Wen Inc. and Kimberly-Clark Corp.

“Our ancestral waters, and the marine habitats vital to the natural and cultural resources of the Tulalip people, are in need of protection and restoration if they are to continue to support salmon, orcas and shellfish,” said Teri Gobin, chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes, in a release. “The collaborative process of this settlement represents the best path forward for protecting our natural resources for future generations of the Salish Sea.”

Blue Heron Slough is located on Spencer Island, near the mouth of the Snohomish River. In its natural state, the low-lying area flooded daily with the tides and occasionally got inundated by the river. Farmers began clearing and draining the marsh in the late 1800s and built dikes to keep it dry for agricultural use.

More recently, the land was home to Biringer Farm, where families could come to pick berries or see Halloween-themed attractions in the fall. The port bought the property in the mid-1990s. Former owners Mike and Dianna Biringer remained there until moving away last month.

Blue Heron Slough aims to restore tidal channels, marsh, and mud flats by breaching old agricultural dikes in four spots along Steamboat and Union sloughs. The mounds that have caused some I-5 travelers to scratch their heads will provide dirt for a new dike to protect the freeway after the rest of the area is flooded. Work is expected to proceed this summer and extend into 2020.

Blue Heron Slough complements two similarly-sized restoration projects nearby: Snohomish County’s Smith Island project, which flooded former farmland last summer, and the Tulalip Tribes’ Qwuloolt Estuary, where levees were breached in 2015. It would increase the tidally influenced acreage in the Snohomish River estuary by about 13 percent, port officials said.

Development in the estuary deprived Chinook salmon, steelhead and other salmonid species of prime rearing habitat that juvenile fish need as they transition from fresh- to saltwater. The county’s Smith Island project caused consternation among many area farmers, who lamented the shrinking agricultural footprint.

According to court documents, the federal agreement will address the unauthorized discharge of oil and other harmful compounds on properties that the public port now owns. The agreement requires the Navy to address harmful substances on land now owned or operated by Naval Station Everett.

“The Department of Justice is confident that this voluntary settlement will be a significant win for the environment,” said Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

The proposed settlement is subject to a 30-day public comment period. It’s available at www.justice.gov/enrd/consent-decrees.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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