When the fox smiles, count the chickens

Common sense suggests that as stewards of the henhouse go, the fox isn’t the best choice.

So our city is wise to keep the shotgun at hand as Washington State Ferries assures the community that $40 million worth of work at the Eagle Harbor maintenance yard – WSF’s own project – will have no significant impact on the environment.

Would anyone really expect WSF to say otherwise?

As reported in these pages Saturday, the ferry system has issued a formal “determination of environmental non-significance” for the expansive maintenance yard upgrades, which they hope to begin this summer. Skeptical, the city wants to replace WSF as “lead agency,” that is, the body responsible for the project’s environmental review. At stake for the Bainbridge community is a sense of confidence that impacts on the shoreline environment and surrounding neighborhoods will be fully considered; at stake for WSF are time and money, both of which could be lost if fuller environmental study and mitigation are required.

We concede that such issues can be of marginal interest to the newspaper-buying public, a slog through the morass of state environmental law best left to attorneys. But the City Council and the administration are making a good move here, and islanders should understand why.

Adopted in 1971, the State Environmental Policy Act – SEPA for short – helps the public indentify environmental impacts that may arise from governmental decisions. Such actions can include issuance of permits for private developments, construction of public facilities, or adoption of new policies and regulations. When someone wants to build something in Washington, they’re usually required to fill out an “environmental checklist” that asks, among other things: Would it increase traffic or noise? Impinge on wetlands? Displace wildlife or knock down historic structures? Stink up the air? The lead agency (usually the city or county) then reviews the checklist and determines whether more thorough – and generally costlier – environmental study is required.

SEPA is powerful legislation, to be sure, and rightfully empowers activists to insist on high standards of project review. A SEPA appeal won’t always get you what you want – particularly if the desired outcome is “permit denied” – but it usually makes the right people ask better questions, and developers give more complete answers.

Curiously, though, a long-standing SEPA provision allows public agencies to act as lead agency on their own projects, determining how much environmental scrutiny those projects should receive. But this is like letting Dick Cheney teach a hunting safety course; you have to wonder about the results. No city would let a builder decide how much environmental study his own development needs; it’s silly that state law still allows public agencies to act as their own watchdogs, when they have such a clear interest in not noticing any problems.

Will the ferry maintenance yard upgrades have significant environmental impacts? Who knows – but somebody needs to ask the hard questions that Washington State Ferries has no reason to ask itself. In the sage words of a former president: “Trust, but verify.”

Unless, of course, you really trust the smile on the fox.

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