One of the most polluted sites in WA is being targeted for development

The contaminated land under the old Snoqualmie sawmill is at the heart of a dispute over plans for an expansive development.

An old sawmill seen in Snoqualmie, a small but growing town in eastern King County, Washington. The city wants to turn the turn the area into apartments, wine bars, restaurants and offices. But first the city, state and county have to figure out if the project is safe and doable. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

The old sawmill site has an isolated, eerie vibe. 

About a mile from iconic Snoqualmie Falls. Surrounded by forest. Inhabited by huge ghostly sawmill buildings. Modern rally racing cars occasionally zipping about on dusty dirt roads, giving the 261 acres a Mad Max ambiance. A mountain of old logs piled up in one corner. Pre-World War II Japanese American artifacts stashed here and there. And just across the Snoqualmie River from downtown Snoqualmie.

Beneath that ghost town of a sawmill: a half-understood mess of subterranean pollution. But this property also happens to be the biggest piece of undeveloped industrial and commercial land in King County.

The town and people of Snoqualmie will soon start wrestling big-time over whether to greenlight a 15-year makeover of the area, transforming it into a collection of restaurants, wine shops, apartments, offices and light industrial buildings.

On Aug 25, the state Department of Ecology added the sawmill site to its site hazard assessment list with a ranking of ”1” — the most hazardous on a scale of 1 to 5.

Developer Tom Sroufe and owner Steve Rimmer see lots of potential for the site. Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson sees new tax revenue for a small city with financial pressures. 

However, a citizens group — the Snoqualmie Community Action Network — sees the developer, mayor and city officials railroading through a project that will wreck the quaint nature of Snoqualmie, while stirring up massive amounts of underground pollution from the old Weyerhaeuser sawmill. 

This dispute will soon kick into a much higher gear because a final environmental study report — commissioned by the developer — is due to be unveiled any day now. That will trigger a “quasi-judicial” governmental hearing, and then the Snoqualmie City Council will have to make a decision about whether to give the go-ahead to Sroufe’s 15-year development plan. 

“Quasi-judicial” means the city council is to be regarded as judge and jury on the matter. No one on either side can talk to council members before the public hearing. And city council members cannot do their own research on the project. 

Those rules have sparked a fierce feud between project backer Larson, who is not a member of the council, and project opponent Councilwoman Peggy Shepard.

A driver from DirtFish rally car driving school is seen on the racetrack adjacent to an old sawmill in Snoqualmie, a small but growing town in eastern King County. The city wants to turn the area into apartments, wine bars, restaurants and offices and get rid of the existing structures and the driving school. But first the city, state and county have to figure out if the project is safe and doable. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

A driver from DirtFish rally car driving school is seen on the racetrack adjacent to an old sawmill in Snoqualmie, a small but growing town in eastern King County. The city wants to turn the area into apartments, wine bars, restaurants and offices and get rid of the existing structures and the driving school. But first the city, state and county have to figure out if the project is safe and doable. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Loggers and hops growers drifted into the area 25 miles east of Seattle in the latter half of the 19th century. The 1870s brought about a dozen logging operations. An early incarnation of Weyerhaeuser built a huge sawmill complex that opened in 1917 next to the city. During construction, Weyerhaeuser chopped off a C-shaped bend in the Snoqualmie River, turning the separated section into O-shaped Borst Lake (named after the first white man who entered the area), essentially a stagnant scum-filled moat around an islandlike chunk of land. 

This was a storage site for logs and an unintended catchment area for underground pollution. It is next to, but not part of, the site eyed for development.

Roughly half of the sawmill workforce of 1,700 — about equal to the city of Snoqualmie’s population — lived onsite in their own unincorporated minitown, with homes, barracks, stores, schools and a hospital. During World War II, many of the minitown’s residents who were Japanese-Americans were shipped to internment camps over Weyerhaeuser’s protests in 1942. Limited in what they could carry, the Japanese Americans dumped many of their belongings in outhouse pits that have since been covered over.

“There’s so much rich history there,” said Anna Boranian, one of the leaders of the citizens group.

The complex was shut down in1989, but Weyerhaeuser kept some offices there until the early 21st century. 

Snoqualmie remained a small town of about 1,600 serving the sawmill complex and some Interstate 90 drivers until   improvements to the I-90 ramps led to more restaurants, shopping and a light industrial area near the interstate. The town’s population has since boomed to roughly 14,000.

“We were pumping out a house a day for a while,” said Larson, the mayor.

City services are still trying to catch up with the population spurt, he said. That has led the government to hunt for new revenue. Annexing and developing the old sawmill site seemed like a good option. In 2012, the city annexed the sawmill’s 261 acres. In 2010, Rimmer, the site’s current owner and an aviation executive and rally racing enthusiast, bought the property to house the Dirtfish Rally School to train rally car drivers.

By studying the visitors to the upper Snoqualmie River area, Sroufe realized developing the sawmill site had great potential to attract more visitors. In 2017, Snoqualmie Mill Ventures — Rimmer is one of the owners — submitted an application to the city of Snoqualmie for permission to develop an office-apartments-restaurant-light industrial complex. 

The 15-year development plan is divided into three, roughly five-year phases. Phase 1 is the site’s northwest corner with a pedestrian-oriented main street, including wine shops, restaurants, event spaces and apartments. Phase 2 is intended for light industrial use on the site’s northeast corner. Phase 3 would be corporate buildings on the southern half, replacing the Dirtfish Rally School.

In April 2020, the venture submitted a draft environmental impact study report to the city, which predicted full development of the site would result in 228 to 304 people living in that area by 2032, with 1,570 to 3,410 people being employed there.

 So far, the project has not nailed down any assured tenants, since a development schedule is still up in the air, Sroufe said. Also, a budget for developing Phase 1 is in flux, he added. 

The environmental impact study says there are no known or suspected contamination in Phase 1, t there are problems in the other two parts. The report zeroed in on Phase 3, noting it holds PCB-containing transformers, a huge diesel tank and boiler ash being used as filler material in parts of the ground. Boiler ash frequently contains metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. All have toxic qualities. 

The city government has begun receiving public comments on the draft report, which are supposed to be addressed in the final report.  

The Department of Ecology provided feedback in a July 9, 2020, letter to the city that noted the sawmill site is on the state’s Confirmed and Suspected Contaminated Sites list. It also said the department disagreed with the report’s conclusions that there are no known or suspected contaminants in Phase 1. Overall, the sawmill site holds underground petroleum tanks, PCB-containing transformers and subterranean pentachlorophenol left over from lumber preservation, the state letter said. Toxic dioxins and furans from plywood processing are also likely in the ground, it added.

The project needs extensive environmental investigations of the soils, surface water and groundwater, the Ecology Department letter said. The state also is not sure whether the city of Snoqualmie has enough water rights to serve homes and businesses in the sawmill area, the letter said.

The King County Permitting Division, in a July 13, 2020 feedback letter, said more information is needed on creosote in stored logs and In chemicals seeping toward Borst Lake. With more people living and working in the sawmill area, that increases the likely numbers of people visiting the lake, the county letter said.

A second King County letter from the Department of Natural Resources and Parks said the developers need better archaeological research on the Japanese American history at the site.

The citizens group’s hired scientific consultant — Practical Environmental Solutions of East Wenatchee — also called for more environmental investigations and remedial work before construction begins.

“There is a huge amount of work to prepare this property for development. Minimizing that investment and the huge work that it will require would be a grave mistake,” Practical Environmental Solutions wrote. “It would be naive to assume without any investigation there is no contamination in Planning Area 1.”  Sroufe and Larson acknowledged that development is impossible without first doing environmental cleanup.

“It’s in our vested interest to make it a clean site. … We’re not pretending it’s a clean site,” Sroufe said. Larson added: “Development is what will clean up the site. … Why would Steve Rimmer or someone expose themselves to potentially costly lawsuits?” 

One lawsuit has already been filed. On Feb. 26, 2021, the Waste Action Project of Seattle organization filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Seattle against the site’s owners and developers. 

Still in its preliminary stages, the lawsuit seeks a judgment that the owners and developers have violated the U.S. Clean Water Act by not tracking and dealing with rain falling on the area, soaking into the ground, becoming polluted with toxic materials and seeping toward the Snoqualmie River. In addition to federal fines, the Waste Action Project is trying to force the developers to deal with the underground pollution.

About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government. He can be followed on Twitter: @johnstang_8