By John Gillie, May 10, 2013, The News Tribune
When agricultural inspectors first discovered a dime-sized mollusk on a vacant industrial site at the Port of Tacoma eight years ago, they sounded a loud alarm.
If those vineyard snails, an invader from the Mediterranean, spread to the state’s bountiful agricultural lands, the port, those infected fields and even the state might be slapped with a quarantine. That quarantine could have a billion-dollar consequence for Washington farmers and the port itself.
Happily for Washington’s agriculture industry, swift action to contain and eradicate the vineyard snail infestation kept that nightmare from happening.
For the Port of Tacoma, the snail’s stealth invasion hasn’t turned out as well.
The innocuous-looking snails are on target to cost the Port of Tacoma more than $5.7 million in eradication and mitigation costs.
The Port of Tacoma commission this week put the biggest piece of that snail-caused mitigation program into play, voting to spend some $4.1 million to redevelop a wetland near River Road to replace Tideflats wetlands damaged during the port’s snail eradication efforts.
The port has already spent more than $500,000 in legal fees negotiating a proposed settlement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Under that settlement, the port also proposes to pay the EPA a $500,000 penalty for the port’s failure to obtain proper federal permits before removing vegetation from the snail-infested port site in an effort to deprive the imported snail of food and shelter. The port has also spent $714,573 on eradication efforts over the last eight years including staff time, the port said.
Jason Jordan, the port’s director of environmental programs, said the port, in an effort to quickly eradicate the snail six years ago, failed to get federal and state permits to clear the snail habitat.
The port was under pressure from both the state and federal departments of agriculture to act decisively to wipe out the snail invasion. The port had unsuccessfully tried gentler methods on the site that was ground zero for the snail infestation, a tract it had bought from Tacoma Public Utilities between Alexander Avenue and Taylor Way just south of East 11th Street. It had hired a herd of goats to eat away the vegetation, but the vegetation grew faster than the goats could eat it, and more importantly, the port discovered the snails could survive the goat’s digestive process, potentially spreading the snails to new sites after the goats left the infected plot.
The port did light mowing and trimming, but that, too, was inadequate. The port then sought city of Tacoma permission to bring in heavier machinery to remove trees and larger brush. The city granted that permission, but the port never asked federal and state approval.
The site the snails inhabited contained two modest wetlands already contaminated with industrial detritus such as tires and discarded junk. The machinery, the EPA claimed, degraded those wetlands when it moved in to remove the snail habitat.
Three years ago, the EPA brought in the federal Department of Justice and began the legal process to force the port to restore the wetlands.
The port, instead, proposed rehabilitating farmland it owned near Pioneer Way and Gay Road into a full-fledged productive wetland. That restoration process would include recreating a meandering stream through the property that could serve as a refuge for juvenile salmon and other species.
Wednesday’s proposal to the EPA is a better outcome than what the agency might have imposed, said Jordan. The agency could have demanded the Tideflats wetlands be restored. Those wetlands were never very productive, and they stand in the way of eventual terminal expansion. And they continue to harbor the snails.
The consent decree approved by the commission Wednesday doesn’t totally solve the snail issue.
A recent survey by the state Department of Agriculture shows the vineyard snail population has diminished greatly, but a core population remains in the Tideflats wetlands.
The port continues to actively mow the land near the wetlands and it baits the area near the wetlands with snail poison. But environmental regulations prohibit using that molluscicide in the wetland boundaries.
“The snails aren’t supposed to like living in a wet environment,” said Jordan. “We hope that our efforts will eventually lead to their demise.”
The port has taken major precautions to prevent permitless work from happening again, said Jordan.
Port commissioners said that given the circumstances, the proposed settlement, which still must be approved by EPA headquarters, was as good a result as could have been expected.
“This is really a sad situation,” said commission president Don Meyer. “The only reason that I can get behind this is that most of the money is being spent in this area to improve the environment.”