City of Tacoma grants approval for outside investor to pave over Tacoma’s Aquifer

Why did this happen, what conditions were required to be met, who is this company, and can the community appeal this decision? 

On Earth Day, 2023, the City of Tacoma gave conditional approval to Bridge International to build the largest warehouse complex in the world. Taking up 50 football fields the project would involve among numerous other environmental impacts, including paving over 150 acres of South Tacoma’s aquifer, which is the city’s emergency backup water supply in the event of droughts or a natural disaster like an earthquake or volcanic eruption cutting access to the main pipeline from the Green River.

Why did this happen?

  • 4/21/23 – City of Tacoma issued land use permits which included the following:
    • Critical Areas Development permit for modification of the wetlands and stream
      • Based on analysis “in accordance with the Zoning Code, Critical Areas Code and all other development codes and considered probable significant impacts in accordance with the SEPA regulations. The Critical Areas Development Permit decision is “approved with conditions.” 
    • SEPA – State Environmental Policy Act determination
      • “Mitigated Determination of Nonsignificance.” This means the review of the entire project, as revised and with the additional studies that have been reviewed, is not likely to have a significant adverse impact on the elements of the environment that are reviewed under SEPA as long as the project meets certain conditions (mitigation) for the impacts.

Online flyer from:

What was left out of City of Tacoma’s approval process?

  • Health Impact Assessment
  • Environmental Impact Statement
  • Traffic/pedestrian study (Instead approval was based upon a flawed traffic report)
  • Fauna/flora inventory of site (instead a faulty one was done by the developer)
  • Climate impact assessment
  • Protected aquifer recharging/pollution study
  • Study of impacts to the local economy in the area

According to the April 10, 2023 Tacoma Weekly article – Warehouse Pits Locals Against Developers –  – “The South Tacoma Neighborhood Council created the South Tacoma Economic Green Zone proposal, aka STEGZ, which” was “submitted as a code amendment to the city of Tacoma in March 2021. The goal was to update the South Tacoma Groundwater Protection District’s code to protect the aquifer and to create a new land-use code within the environmentally sensitive area.” 

Timothy Smith, former Director at Large for South Tacoma Neighborhood Council, explains how this project risks critical losses to the Aquifer recharge area. “There are 13 wells, 11 that we use –  one is offline for PFAS infiltration and one is from an old oil site.”

Smith explains how Dr Steve Emmerman, a nationally acclaimed Hydrogeologist who specializes in groundwater and mining, sent a letter to the City regarding real issues needing to be addressed about the aquifer. The City, which does not have their own Hydrogeologist, refused to consider anything that he put forth. “Subject Matter Experts” from TPU (Tacoma Power and Utilities) have simply said to the council…”Well it’s like a big river down there.”

Smith describes – “Long before anyone knew about the BI Warehouse project, the heavily impacted residents of South Tacoma were working for an update of the Groundwater Zoning OVERLAY/Protection District and for a relook at zoning to support that and promote a Green Economy.” 

“The Tacoma City Council voted on Phase 1A of the STEGZ proposal in June of 2022, which only approved beginning a “Work Plan” for updating the local groundwater code. But the economic green zone continues to be delayed.”

Tacoma Weekly – April 10, 2023 Warehouse Pits Locals Against Developers

Smith, who is opposed to the project, defines the goal of the Economic Green Zone as one “intended to eliminate systemic oppression and structural violence while empowering the people to build autonomous communities rooted in economic equality and environmental justice.”

He goes on to describe how “30 regional organizations and many hundreds of residents on public record to request an Environmental Impact Statement, the city has simply forwarded those concerns to Bridge Point Tacoma, whose response is that they are not legally required to answer to the public. In that same letter, Bridge Point Tacoma also states that the City should not have used the “expanded” notification range for its permit notice announcement, which in actuality only sent notices to 975 residents and the smallest possible radius within mostly industrial land. Bridge Point Tacoma appears to want public input dismissed.”

“Tacoma Planning and Development Services could have made the case for a Health Impact Statement by drawing upon multiple government agencies’ support for requiring a Health Impact Assessment, since several wrote asking for a HIA due to the grave possibility of serious harm to neighboring residents’ health.”

“These statements came from the US EPA Region 10, the Washington State Department of Ecology, State Department of Health and the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.

And yet, the City PDS has not indicated that they will request an HIA, even though this is exactly what an HIA was created and expected to be used for. The developer, Bridge Point Tacoma insists that no HIA is required.”

Michelle Mood, who has been on record in opposition to the project, informed The News Tribune by email that she and her spouse were “quite concerned” about the decision made by Director of Planning and Development Services Peter Huffman.

“Skimming the documentation shared today, we can find: 

  • No mention at all of the health equity concerns clearly prominent in comment letters by the
    • EPA
    • Department of Ecology
    • Department of Health
    • Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department 
    • ALL of which strongly recommended an intensive health impact assessment of this proposed construction.”

She noted that those who live in the area where this construction is being proposed already suffer from poor air quality. 

In summary – an approved Groundwater Code Update, Health Impact Assessment and STEGZ proposal have all been delayed.

This new construction is expected to

  • Generate 5000 to 12,000 new vehicle trips a day (including an estimated 1400 daily diesel semi-trucks) on Tacoma streets and freeways 
  • Disturb 100 acres of Superfund soil
  • Risk destruction of an aquifer that according to our health department could provide 40% of Tacoma drinking water. 
  • Devastate many blocks of green space and habitat 
  • Increase heat trapping and climate impacts
  • Impact the wetland and protected stream with industrial pollution
  • Creation of low-paying, unhealthy, and largely non-local, non-small business jobs. 

All in Tacoma’s most diverse neighborhood that already suffers from higher rates of cancer due to industrial pollution; this project is a clear example of environmental racism

From the Tacoma Weekly article – the critical aquifer recharge area (CARA) “has been defined as “areas where an aquifer that is a source of drinking water is both highly susceptible and vulnerable to contamination.Washington’s Department of Ecology states that “The goal of establishing critical aquifer recharge areas is to protect a community’s drinking water by preventing pollution and maintaining supply.” Yet the Department of Ecology apparently has little jurisdiction over such matters, which in this case has somehow been left to the City of Tacoma’s Planning and Development Services department.” “The proposed project would unquestionably have profound and long-lasting environmental impacts. It would jeopardize Tacoma’s ability to make progress towards our climate goals and threaten air and water quality, as well as community health and well-being,” says Tack-Hooper Supervising Senior Attorney in Earthjustice.

“The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency has found that the City of Tacoma already has one of the highest risks of cancer in the state, with diesel pollution a primary risk factor.”….This project would contribute further to the South Tacoma project being a ‘diesel death zone’ “It’s asking to have that aquifer contaminated with some of the most toxic chemicals we know of, you’re almost guaranteeing it,” Dr. Moench – Board President of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.”

Despite promises by City Manager Elizabeth Pauli to notify neighbors of big industrial projects back in 2017, the city worked behind closed doors to solidify this deal with a real estate operating company and investment manager allegedly out of Chicago (whose founding legal/investment partners are steeped in cross-border lending practices). The level of secrecy, lack of outreach to neighbors, and total silence by the City Council on this issue has been very alarming. Why is the City of Tacoma selling enormous acreage to a non-local, potentially foreign-funded investment company who has no vested interest in protecting the health of Tacoma residents, its water supply, or the air quality for our children

A nagging question is also why did they select South Tacoma for these warehouses despite data indicating that building in North East Tacoma would have had considerably less negative impacts across the board? 

What’s next for Bridge Industrial? 

“Following the Critical Area permitting and SEPA Environmental review, the applicant will be required to apply for development permits including Site Development, Work Order (work in the right-of-way), and Building.”

What conditions were required to be met?

When I wrote to Shirley Schultz in opposition of this project – she sent me the following documents on April 21, 2023. 

  • LU21-0125 Bridge Industrial CAPO Decision.pdf
    • States that out of 68 identified protected oaks only one protected oak would be removed. No details on other trees on the property.
    • Mitigation for the project is proposed and will include wetland and stream buffer restoration and enhancement, the re-establishment of historic wetlands, FEMA floodplain compensation areas within the wetland buffer areas to achieve the required “no net rise” criteria for floodplain development
    • A Development Permit is required for the following:
      • impacts to the onsite stream (Stream Z) due to required frontage improvements and the widening of South Madison Street;
      • impacts to the buffers of Wetlands A and B as well as Stream Z, due to buffer averaging; an additional 230 square feet of indirect impacts to the buffer of Wetland;
      • temporary buffer impacts due to construction and grading;
      • buffer impacts for a stormwater trench;
      • temporary impacts for bottomless crossings of Stream Z; and
      • removal of one Garry Oak.
    • Public Interest “A proposal is in the public interest if its benefit to the public exceeds the detrimental impacts on the wetland, stream, and Biodiversity Areas. In this case, the stream and the wetlands do not provide much functional value due to the degradation on the site. The Director finds that the restoration of the stream and wetlands, as well as the creation of additional wetland areas, will have a high probability of improving all the natural functions in the area. This will result in a net benefit that is in the public interest and this legal test has been met.”
  • LU21-0125 Bridge Industrial MDNS.pdf
    • Water
      • The site is located within the South Tacoma Groundwater Protection District (STGPD). All stormwater on the site will be captured and treated prior to infiltration or discharge to the stream/wetland system
      • The STGPD is also a portion of the City’s aquifer recharge area. Review by the Tacoma Water Division of Tacoma Public Utilities indicates no probable adverse impacts from the proposal related to water supply or water quality, provided surface water regulations are complied with. See Exhibits L, N, X, and Y.
    • Applicant is required to obtain a Wetland Development Permit prior to any site development occurring on the site. Compliance with the permit includes:
      • Preservation and protection of the critical area in perpetuity;
      • Mitigation, monitoring, and maintenance of the critical area and restoration areas, with
        • sureties (bonds):
        • Removal of invasive vegetation;
        • Retention and protection of mature Garry Oak trees internal to the development site 
    • Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases
      • The following mitigation measures are intended to address concerns about human and environmental health related to air quality and greenhouse gases as discussed in the City of Tacoma Comprehensive Plan, the City’s Equity Index, and the 2030 Climate Action Plan.
        • a. Construction equipment shall meet Tier 4 standards for fuel efficiency and emissions, unless it can be demonstrated that such equipment is not reasonably available or that exigent circumstances require use of other equipment.
        • b. The applicant shall meet or exceed all best practices for fugitive dust emissions as provided in the applicant’s soil management report. Any soil loads removed from the site shall be covered. All grading/filling activity shall maintain soils on site – watering soils, or halting work during windy/dry weather. 
        • c. The site shall have signage and tenant agreements implementing a strict no-idling policy for all vehicles on site.
  • LU21-0125 Decision Postcard.pdf
  • Att A SEPA Checklist.pdf
  • Att B Architectural Site Plan.pdf
  • Att C CAPO Tech Memo.pdf

Despite the appearance of environmentally protective measures it remains to be seen whether these will a) be enough to protect our air quality and aquifer, and b) whether Bridge Industrial will honor these commitments (or whether the City of Tacoma will hold them to account). Clearly, a committed third party watch dog will be necessary – and if there are findings of negative impacts, will there be consequences or will the city turn a blind eye. 

Does the community plan to appeal? 

  • Heidi Stephens, from the South Tacoma Neighborhood Council, has also spoken out against this project at City Council meetings. Per her email with the News Tribune she writes that they are “reviewing the decision and considering our legal options.”
  • Appeals to the decision can be filed with the City of Tacoma Hearing Examiner no later than May 5, 2023, at 5 p.m.
  • Community organizations are organizing and planning to appeal. There is a meeting planned for Sunday April 30th, 1-3pm at Evergreen Tacoma, 1210 6th St. with multiple panelists discussing the risks and options.