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Neighborhood roiled over city road spoils

Eagle Harbor Drive resident Dan Brewer discusses conditions at a city public works site behind his property at the Head of the Bay. Brewer contends that material from roadside grading, street sweeping, ditch spoils and other waste is hazardous, and should be kept away from city wells on a nearby parcel. A citizen committee, meanwhile, is recommending upgrades to the site to make it appropriate as a decant facility for screening of waste for disposal elsewhere. - DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo
Eagle Harbor Drive resident Dan Brewer discusses conditions at a city public works site behind his property at the Head of the Bay. Brewer contends that material from roadside grading, street sweeping, ditch spoils and other waste is hazardous, and should be kept away from city wells on a nearby parcel. A citizen committee, meanwhile, is recommending upgrades to the site to make it appropriate as a decant facility for screening of waste for disposal elsewhere.
— image credit: DOUGLAS CRIST/Staff Photo

At the Head of the Bay, where Wyatt Way becomes Eagle Harbor Drive, a seemingly endless string of cars curve toward the south end, making it one of the busier thoroughfares on today’s Bainbridge.

Take a right turn up a dirt road, and it’s a different world – a century-old farmhouse sits on a hillside overlooking small fields and a year-round stream.

But with what residents claim is increasing frequency, that tranquility is disturbed by the rumble and dust of heavy truck traffic heading towards a city-owned maintenance yard, which some claim has expanded stealthily and perhaps illegally over the years.

“We were told this was temporary, that they would be out as soon as they could,” said Dan Brewer, whose 1902 house abuts the city property. “But the city has a new yard, and it has expanded this facility, doubling its size in the past year.”

Brewer led a group of neighbors before the Bainbridge City Council this week to express concerns over operations there, with one calling it “an industrial toxic waste site and dump.”

City Administrator Lynn Nordby said he is unaware of recent changes at the site, but agreed that use had expanded over the past decade as a matter of necessity.

“The public works department slowly started adding activities there because there was no other choice,” Nordby said. “First, we had only the facility at what is now John Nelson Park. Then when we got the new facility (off Hidden Cove Road), there were new regulatory requirements for the road sweepings, so we still had to use the Head of the Bay site.”

Lance Newkirk, city operations manager, said the uses there have not changed, but have become “better organized” to enable waste streams to be separated. That led to changes in the site’s layout.

Activity fluctuates, Newkirk said, but is high right now because in May, city crews grade road shoulders to prepare for the summer chip-sealing program, generating large quantities of material for disposal.

He said the number of trucks and other pieces of heavy equipment now parked on the site is an anomaly.

“We’re paving the (Hidden Cove) yard right now, so we’ve moved a bunch of the equipment to the Head of the Bay while that is going on,” he said.

The facility – a large dirt staging area, with concrete blocks used to segregate materials – is operating in a residential zone without any kind of permit, Brewer contends. That’s an allegation that city officials admit may be correct.

Said Nordby: “That predates all-island annexation. It may go back so far that it doesn’t have a permit, and may not need one.”

Brewer fears the worst is yet to come. A citizen panel is making a tentative but strong recommendation that a controversial “decant” facility – used for the separation of ditch spoils and other waste, for disposal elsewhere – should remain at the site, even though several of the city’s water wells are located nearby.

Brewer says that in 1991, the city refused to give a neighbor road access through the property, saying protection of the wells required “a total ban on public access.”

But the committee is not endorsing the status quo – in fact, a consultant’s report done for the committee says the existing operation is “probably not in compliance” with state and county health regulations.

“We recognize that we need to improve on what we’re doing. That’s why we’re going through this process,” said Public Works Director Randy Witt.

At issue is the disposal of what street sweepers pick up, along with debris from roadway shoulders and ditches, and fluid vacuumed from stormwater catch-basins.

Because the material is too wet for a landfill and contains too much solid material for the city wastewater plant, it needs to be “decanted” – run through screens to filter out large debris like tree-limbs and rocks, then into trays where the liquid can evaporate.

Some of the material is contaminated, principally with petroleum residue, and is subject to state and county regulations requiring, among other things, ultimate disposal in a permitted landfill.

And although the county health regulations specifically say the material is not dangerous, they do advise keeping it away from wellheads and other water sources.

The city doesn’t have a full decant facility at its Head of Bay property. What it does have is a box, something like a flattened dumpster, into which the slurries are deposited.

Once a week or so, the box is hauled to an off-island facility for decanting and ultimate disposal.

Because of both wellhead proximity and capacity limitations, the city has been trying to find a spot for a decanting operation.

Two previous possibilities, one on lower Weaver Road and another on city-owned property at New Brooklyn and Sportsman Club roads, were pulled off the table after withering neighborhood opposition.

A six-member site-selection committee was appointed, and was encouraged to look first at off-island alternatives.

But the time and cost involved in running sweeper trucks to a Kitsap Peninsula facility – plus the fact that no off-island facility can handle all of the waste streams involved – cut against that possibility, according to the consultant’s report.

So the committee is recommending the Head of Bay location, after upgrades to make it more cost-effective and environmentally sound.

“Our preliminary thinking is that it would be a win-win situation if we make the needed improvements to make it a better facility,” said selection committee member David Harrison.

Harrison said the committee envisions such upgrades as paving to reduce noise and dust; grading and pad-building to contain runoff; moving the decant box farther away from wellheads; and modifying procedures to reduce the waste stream itself.

“We want to give assurances to neighbors that the noise and dust impacts can be reduced,” Harrison said.

Whether wellhead protection is a real concern is a matter of continuing dispute.

“I talked to people at the county health department, and they said ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ when I told them about road wastes being dumped upstream from the wells,” Brewer said.

Witt counters that continuing water-quality monitoring has not disclosed any problems, but agreed the situation bears watching.

“In a casual conversation with the health department – and I emphasize this has only the weight of a casual conversation – they said it’s something we need to look at, but wouldn’t reject (the site) out of hand,” Witt said.

The decant site selection committee will hold an open house from 6-9 p.m. May 29 at the Commons to discuss its report, take comments, then make a final recommendation.

Contrary to a report in a city publication that Harrison dubbed “premature,” no final decision on a site has been made.

“It’s not too late for people to come and participate,” he said.

But Harrison also hopes discussion can focus on future operations at an improved site, not on current conditions.

“I hope questions about the present operations will not derail orderly consideration of the committee’s work,” he said.

All parties involved acknowledge that changes to the Head of the Bay facility to accommodate a decant operation will require new city permits, which would bring environmental analysis and opportunities for more public comment.

In fact, the consultants said the permitting situation was the biggest single negative factor about the Head of the Bay site.

“We have a lot of work to do on that,” Witt said. “This isn’t over.”

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