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Grassroots Group Decries Port Of Tacoma's Move To Block Ballot Measures Over Industrial Water Use

Ashley Gross
The Port of Tacoma

An attorney for the grassroots organization Save Tacoma Water decried the Port of Tacoma, the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber,  the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County and the city of Tacoma for asking a court to block two measures the group wants to get on the ballot.

The Port, the city of Tacoma and the two business groups "are trying to use the court as a weapon to strangle democracy in Tacoma," said Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin, an attorney for Save Tacoma Water,  in a statement.

That comes after the Port and the two business groups filed a lawsuit earlier this week in Pierce County Superior Court, saying the measures exceed local initiative authority. The city of Tacoma is also opposing the measures. 

The initiatives call for a vote of the people before any potential water utility customer is allowed to use one million gallons or more per day.

“It’s just very sad that we have our governments basically siding with corporate interests over and above the public interest, and we’re simply trying to protect our water resources and our community’s rights," said Michael Lafreniere, a spokesman for Save Tacoma Water. 

The initiatives came as a response to the now-canceled methanol plant that had been proposed for the Port of Tacoma tideflats, a project that would have used more than 10 million gallons of water per day.

Carolyn Lake, general counsel for the Port, said the ballot measures pose a number of problems. For example, she said the initiatives are akin to a back-door attempt at zoning, which the courts have said ballot measures can’t do.  

Filing a statewide initiative is constitutionally protected so courts usually won’t weigh in until they become law. But Will Patton, a retired attorney who worked for many years in the utilities section of the Seattle City Attorney's office, said that’s not true for local measures. 

"The (Washington) Supreme Court just in February of this year reaffirmed its statements that local initiatives are different from statewide initiatives and they can be successfully challenged before they’re even put on the ballot," Patton said. 

Patton said he thinks the lawsuit against the measures makes a good case. For one thing, state law requires a utility to serve all customers as long as there’s enough capacity. But Lafreniere said that with climate change and seasonal water shortages, it's not clear that the Tacoma watershed will be able to accommodate additional big industrial users of water. 

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.