Shane Harms/ Ballard News-Tribune
Peggy Sturdivant (left) standing with Richard Ellison (center) and other demonstrators.

Citizens step in front of chainsaws to stop tree removal

City takes the trees, leaves questions

Concerned citizens gathered at the City Light (SCL) owned Loyal Heights Substation (7750 NW 28th St.) on Feb. 12 in an attempt to save three large ornamental cherry trees.

However, their scheduled noontime start was too late because SCL crews cut the trees earlier that morning.

But some protesters made it to the location anyway just as crews were about to cut.

According to Peggy Sturdivant of Seattle Green Spaces Coalition (SGSC), she got a call from a neighbor around 8:15 a.m. who said the SCL crews were there.
Sturdivant lives near the site and rushed there to meet others.

The group prevented the crew from cutting the trees for one hour and thirty minutes by standing in front of them. According to Sturdivant and witnesses, Seattle Police were called around the same time and did not arrive to the scene until one hour and thirty minutes after the call. By the time they arrived the protesters had moved to the sidewalk.

SCL posted a notice for the tree removal at the former substation on Feb. 2. According SCL’s environmental report a large amount of dieldrin that tested more than 70 times higher than what is allowed under state law was found in the soil. Also high levels of cadmium and arsenic were found at the site. The testing was conducted on Jan. 26. The trees were removed as part of the environmental remediation of the site.

“We feel that in the interest of public health we need to undertake this remediation as quickly as possible,” wrote Director of the Office of Sustainability and Environment, Jessica Finn Coven to Seattle Green Space Coalition.

SGSC organized the protest with TreePac, and they posted a notification for the demonstration on their website on Feb. 9. Since then they have been petitioning the Mayor and City Council members to wait to remove the trees until it was clear what the future use of the site would be and to explore remediation options that might save the trees such as vactoring: a process where water is blasted into the soil and the contaminated slurry is vacuumed out.

SGSC also called for an independent environmental contractor to assess soil remediation options and potential harm to neighbors from the remediation.
They noted that the cherry trees would be protected as “exceptional” if they were on private, not public property.

In addition, the group claims that the city has sidestepped the public process by not allowing more time for the public to voice concern. The group contends that trees and opens spaces are a vital part of every community and that 10 days to respond to the removal of trees that have been there for years is not adequate nor is it public process. They cited the removal of a healthy Korean Ash from the N.W. Market Street homeless encampment as a way SCL has sidestepped public process. The tree was cut before the public meeting was held where citizens discussed if the encampment would actually reside at the N.W. street location.

“It’s not just about the trees. The pattern of disregard for community process is fueling citizen anger,” wrote the SGSC in an announcement.

About the City scheduling the cutting a few hours before the demonstration, Richard Ellison, a biologist, with Plant Amnesty who attended the demonstration, said the city was playing “hard ball.”

“There was a scheduled protest today…word went out on a variety of things. This is how the City plays. They play hardball. They play ‘we don’t care, we don’t have to,’ said Ellison. “They wanted to cut them down, dig the soil out and then sell it. This could have been a nice pocket park, a nice park. There was barely any public input.”’

“The City is just raising money. That’s my impression. They see an opportunity to balance their budgets better, raise money – the City needs money. There is lots of need…but at the same time the City is growing so quickly that there is also a real need for parks.”

Scott Thomsen of Seattle City Light said, “We had had plans in place to get the work started as soon as we had an opportunity to do so.”

“Once we have that info (test results) in front of us it’s important to remedy the site as quickly as we can. That’s true no matter what the future use of the property might have. We have an obligation to clean up these sites.”

The Loyal Heights substation is one of three locations in the North Ballard area that are being cleaned up. North Beach and Olympia substations were tested and cleaned in January. SCL suspected that these sights were contaminated because of how they were used in the past: substations and storage facilities.
“We are going through all our old sub station properties to do this type of testing and determine which of these might require cleanup,” said Thomsen.

SGSC members question the urgency of the SCL’s remediation. They said that SCL has known that these sites were contaminated for years. They asked why the sites were such a health hazard in the last two months, a time of unprecedented growth and development in Ballard and Seattle.

However, Thomsen said SCL did not know the extent of the contamination until they tested in January.

In addition, the cleanups cost the utility around $125,000 each. Thomsen said it’s too early to determine the cost of the Loyal Heights clean-up because the contamination varies at each site. Thirty inches of soil needs to be removed from different areas of the site. The cherry trees were located in those areas. Thomsen said that because of the tree location they could not use the vactoring method because when removing more than 30 inches of soil the root system is badly disturbed and could cause the trees to fall.

SCL is being cautious after a tree fell on a building in West Seattle last year after they vactored more than 30 inches around a tree.

“Due to the trees proximity to the sidewalk, we simply couldn’t risk vactoring them. … We are using vactoring where it can be done safely,” wrote Coven.
Thomsen also reported that one of the Cherry trees was already diseased.
On top of the three Cherry trees, there was also a Japanese maple and a cedar cut down.

Three large Cedars remain on the south side property line and Thomsen said that the contamination there would only require removing 18 inches of soil. Vactoring will be used in that area, which is more expensive than typical remediation methods.

Ellison contended that there are other ways to treat the soil that could save the trees like injecting the soil with bacteria or fungi that feed on the contaminants.
He went on to explain how parks are not only important for recreation, mental health and the aesthetics of a city, but also for the environmental health.
“We had hard rains this morning. Where is the water supposed to go? Into the pipes in the ground? Asked Ellison.

“No, Mother Nature’s way is that its absorbed by the big canopy trees and slowly percolates into the ground instead of rushing off into the streets and rushing all the toxins from cars and elsewhere into the Sound. And we wonder why the salmon are in trouble.”

SGSC reached out to Seattle City Council Member Mike O'Brien. They reported that he told them they could purchase the property from Seattle City Light at market value. Thomsen said the property cannot be “donated” as a park because all SCL properties are paid for from ratepayer dollars and not from City/taxpayer funds.

Thomsen also reported that SCL would be planting 10 new trees as part of the Urban Tree Replacement Program.

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