U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday, demanding it address public safety concerns about a proposed wastewater treatment system at the Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s $510 million casino resort that’s under construction near La Center.
The tribe wants to build an vadose injection well system that would pump up to 400,000 gallons a day of wastewater — after it’s treated to drinking-water standards — deep into the earth. (“Vadose” means unsaturated ground.)
Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, and others are worried that the wastewater disposal would harm the area’s water supply. Roughly 120 to 220 feet below the injection site lies the Troutdale Aquifer System, which supplies 99 percent of Clark County’s drinking water. In addition, about 100 domestic wells are within a mile of the site, notes the congresswoman’s letter, addressed to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.
The Cowlitz Tribe is proposing the $13.4 million wastewater disposal system, which it calls “state-of-the-art green technology,” because it cannot hook up to the city of La Center’s sewer system, as the massive casino is being built outside the city’s urban growth boundary. The casino’s water treatment system would include an onsite wastewater reclamation plant that would recycle reclaimed wastewater for flushing toilets, laundry, summer irrigation and decorative fountains, thereby reducing the amount of water injected into the ground.
The tribe submitted its initial documents to the EPA in May, requesting approval under the Authorization by Rule, which would allow the tribe to proceed with construction without further permits.
Herrera Beutler’s letter — which is not the first she’s written opposing the tribe’s efforts to build a casino — expresses her “deep concerns” about “what could be a serious potential threat” to Clark County’s water supply.
“I am troubled that the Tribe’s proposal may be inconsistent with underground injection control (UIC) regulations authorizing Class V wells, which could endanger the critically important Troutdale Sole Source Aquifer and seriously jeopardize the public health, safety, and environment of Clark County,” the letter states.
Cowlitz Tribe Chairman Bill Iyall said he thinks Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, was influenced by “heavy-duty lobbying” by owners of La Center’s cardrooms, who fear a massive casino would put them out of business.
“She’s just responding to that, I believe,” Iyall said Thursday.
In September and December, a Washington, D.C., attorney representing La Center’s card rooms and four local landowners sent letters to the Federal Highway Administration, the Washington State Department of Transportation and the EPA to express concerns about roadwork associated with the Cowlitz casino and the proposed wastewater treatment system. Donald C. Baur of the Perkins Coie law firm copied Herrera Beutler in his Dec. 21 letter, in which he touched upon the same points that Herrera Beutler would later make in her Jan. 20 letter to the EPA.
Like Baur, Herrera Beutler, who is serving her third term in Congress, asked the EPA whether it would require the tribe to file a supplement to its 2009 environmental impact statement to address the injection well system or provide an opportunity for public comment.
Tribal representatives feel their project is being singled out.
“What the letter seems to be suggesting is holding the project to a different standard than other projects are held to,” said Heather Sibbison, chair of the Native American Policy Group and an attorney for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe. “Normally, there isn’t a public hearing for this kind of treatment process.”
Peter Schultz, the tribe’s casino project manager, said the process for getting the well system approved doesn’t require public comment, “so we’re going to follow the process.”
The tribe will, however, publish information on its website about the wastewater system and create handouts for the public, he said.
Herrera Beutler’s letter also states that the casino will annually generate millions of gallons of raw sewage and human waste that might be contaminated by chemicals and prescription drugs. The congresswoman asks whether the EPA believes the proposed wastewater treatment system would be adequate to treat pollutants such as endocrine-disrupting chemicals, nitrates and disinfection by-products, and about effluent standards.
The EPA hasn’t responded to the letter yet. On Wednesday, however, EPA Region 10 policy advisor Bill Dunbar directed a Columbian reporter to a Dec. 28 response his agency sent Herrera Beutler regarding a letter she’d written Dec. 2 raising similar concerns about the Cowlitz’s wastewater project and the potential for chemicals to seep into the groundwater and pollute drinking water wells in the area. The EPA’s letter emphasized that the project was being evaluated to ensure compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Thursday, Iyall said the tribe is committed to the community’s safety, and that it would meet or exceed federal drinking water requirements.
“This is our first reservation,” he said. “It’s our home. … The local community is part of our community, and we want to protect them, too. … We’re going to continue to do the best for the community and protect and preserve the environment.”
Suzanne R. Schaeffer, an attorney representing the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, said the tribe is doing “exactly what is required under the UIC regulations.”
The EPA hasn’t finished reviewing the wastewater proposal. But such injection wells aren’t unheard of — the EPA has allowed the Tulalip, Nisqually, Skagit, Squaxin and Grand Ronde Tribes to build wastewater injection systems on Tribal Trust lands similar to the one the Cowlitz Tribe has proposed, according to Parametrix, the tribe’s engineering consultant.
Scheduled to open in spring 2017, the Cowlitz Tribe’s three-phase project initially will include a casino-resort building of 368,000 total square feet with a 100,000-square-foot gaming floor, plus meeting facilities and 15 different restaurants, bars and retail shops. The casino will feature 2,500 slots, 75 gaming tables, 60 high-limit slots, five high-limit tables, plus a venue for meetings and conventions that can seat up to 2,500 people.
Excavation on the casino site began in October with grading and foundation work, and an official ground-breaking is tentatively scheduled for February, Schultz said. Some steelwork is in progress this week.
The federal government officially recognized the Cowlitz Indian Tribe in 2000. In 2010, the Bureau of Indian Affairs approved an application to take 152 acres of land into trust for a new Cowlitz reservation. The reservation was established in March 2015.