The Port of Longview will join nine other Washington ports to hire a special liaison to expedite review of their permit applications, despite sentiment that paying for tasks required of federal agencies is a form of ransom.
In a 2-1 vote Wednesday, the port commissioners approved an agreement to fund part of the salary for a National Marine Fish Services and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service liaison. That person will be paid for by the ports but would work in the NMFS office in Lacey as a staff biologist and permit consultant and be answerable to both the agency and the ports.
In total, the position will cost up to $182,000 in salary and benefits. The 10 ports will share the costs, with the ports of Seattle and Tacoma fronting about 44%. The ports of Longview, Kalama and Vancouver will each pay about $8,200 this year and $16,500 next year.
The liaison will review federal permit applications for all 10 ports signed on to the agreement. That review would ensure the applications meet the federal Endangered Species Act criteria and don’t “lose their place in line” if any changes in the permit are necessary, said Lisa Hendriksen, director of environmental and planning.
The federal agencies require review for all permit applications and, typically, the offices provide that service. However, the agencies are currently understaffed to cover these consultations, Hendriksen said.
Hendriksen said she recently spoke with one NMFS reviewer who told her that the port’s application for a routine 10-year dredge permit is number five of eight on his desk. The port needs to renew that permit before 2021, when the term for the current one ends. If the permit application needs changes, “he said it would most likely go to the bottom of the stack, and we’d have to work our way back up,” Hendriksen said.
The reviewer is one of three employees in an office that used to staff 10, and the agency doesn’t expect to fill the missing positions, Hendriksen said.
Ports cannot hire outside consultants for the job, because NMFS requires the review to be conduced by a person housed with their staff, said Gerry O’Keefe senior director of environmental affairs for the public ports association.
“While this should not be a local agency’s responsibility to fund their staffing levels, it is the reality in which we are in. ... The ramifications of not having a dedicated ESA reviewer will significantly delay any ongoing or routine permits, as well as any new project proposals,” Hedriksen wrote in the commission briefing letter on the matter.
Port Commissioner Jeff Wilson opposed paying for the liaison, calling it “ransom” to pay for a task that federal agencies are obligated to provide. It’s like a restaurant demanding that customers hire their own private host to eat there, he said.
“I will not budge on this,” Wilson said. “It’s something very fundamentally wrong when we, as (elected officials), are aware of a process that’s not only inefficient, it’s ineffective. And the only way to make it better is to throw money at it.”
Wilson also said the agreement buys public ports privilege not afforded to private businesses.
“Private sector can’t buy the privilege to fast track their permit applications,” Wilson said in an interview after the meeting.
Commissioner Doug Averett said he agreed that the port should pressure federal agencies and representatives to change the situation.
“But the problem is, how long will that take? I don’t want our future projects to be delayed again. That’s why I’m in favor of this,” Averett said.
Averett also agreed that funding the liaison feels like a ransom, but “I truly believe that for us to move forward as a port, we have to have good ears listening to us. And this is the way to do that.”
Siding with Averett, Commissioner Allan Erickson said that until something changes on the national level, signing the liaison agreement is “part of being a good neighbor” with the other ports. All of those ports have signed the agreement or indicated plans to do so, Hendriksen said.