Rough treatment

The imbroglio surrounding the desecration of a Native American burial ground may jump-start sensible development on Washington's northwest coast.

SEMIAHMOO SPIT IS a mile-long wisp of sand dividing the broad shallows of Drayton Harbor from deeper water to the west, the southernmost reach of the Straits of Georgia. For most of its length, it's narrow enough that a child could toss a Frisbee from one shore to the other. A cluster of stately homes and condos overlooks its southern approaches; a resort complex occupies its northern terminus, a rowboat ride from the Canadian border. Between the two extremes is a county park. It seems the unlikeliest place in the world to build a sewage treatment plant. But that's what the City of Blaine, Washington, did back in 1973.

It seemed a good idea at the time: The proximity of the site to downtown Blaine and to deep water offshore kept costs low. Unfortunately, the plant never really worked very well. When heavy rain poured into storm-drains, the overflow ended up in the bay and on the beaches. The underwater sewer carrying sewage to the plant developed hard-to-fix leaks.

Planners and civic groups argued for years that the plant should be moved to a less populous and less environmentally sensitive location. Their appeals went unheard. So did those of local Native American peoples, who pointed out that excavations for the plant had disrupted an aboriginal graveyard. Engineers persuaded the city that though a new plant was needed, relocation was financially and technically impractical. So when the city broke ground this summer for a new, expanded treatment facility for the city's effluents, the site was right next door to the old one.

The city is paying for that decision now big-time. Last Friday the Lummi Indian Tribe notified Blaine of its intention to sue the city for $10,000,000 for its failure to enforce the terms of a detailed protocol by agents of the United States, state, and municipal government that promised to let Native Americans in the area know should any ancestral remains be encountered during the excavations for the new plant. Far from being kept informed, the Lummi say, the contents of nearly 30 burials were removed from the site without notification—not only removed but transported in cavalier fashion all the way to a lab in Denver by Gordon Tucker, the scientist charged with protecting any finds from such treatment.

Ironically, Blaine may end up with a sewage site far better than the one it planned on getting, though at the cost of municipal insolvency, because the Lummi have also demanded that the whole present sewage operation and the planned renovation be abandoned and moved to a location that doesn't violate their ancestors' resting places. The present plan was budgeted at $7.5 million. Blaine public works director Grant Stewart says that relocation, combined with a comprehensive regional treatment solution, could cost anywhere from twice to three times that much.

Once that price tag would have put the kibosh on the very idea of relocation. But times have changed since the 1970s, when it took nearly eight years for the Lummi to get Western Washington University to return the bones removed from Semiahmoo Spit in the first round of construction. This time around everybody from the state historic preservation officer to Al Gore is lined up in support of the Native American position. What common sense and civic activism couldn't bring about in the '80s may now come about through a long-delayed case of dominant culture bad conscience.

IT DOESN'T HURT the prospects for a rational solution that this time a potent force in the economy of Whatcom County is on the side of the angels, activists, and Indians. Last Monday, David Syre, CEO of Trillium Corporation of Bellingham, met with the mayor and city manager of Blaine to express his own and his company's support for the Lummi's demand for relocation.

Developer/timber magnate Syre, much criticized in the 1980s for clearcutting a swath of second-growth timber on Whidbey Island and more recently praised and criticized as well for a plan for sustainable harvesting of forests in Tierra del Fuego, is not just backing abstract justice in the Semiahmoo Spit case. He pioneered the development and recently has become sole owner of the resort properties flanking the disputed sewage plant. From the point of view of a developer, the smelly, leaky Blaine waste treatment plant makes the worst possible neighbor.

But Syre isn't just thinking in terms of the few square miles of Birch Point where his golf course and beachfront properties lie. South of Birch Point is the venerable but fast-growing Birch Bay resort area; further south yet, Cherry Point, with its cheek-by-jowl industrial and leisure-time enclaves; to the north, beyond the Canadian border, the revivified seaside resort town of White Rock.

The whole area is prime real estate, rich in pristine shorelines and mountain vistas, ripe for intelligent development, but unfortunately devoid of any kind of regional planning authority to ensure that development doesn't spoil the very amenities that define it. Sewage from urban areas, Victoria in particular, is already dirtying beaches around the Fraser delta and down to Bellingham.

The challenge to local government produced by Blaine's inept handling of the sewage plant plan and the Lummi's demand for removing the insult to their traditions might be just what's needed to jump-start a regional development plan, beginning with essential infrastructure items like water supply and wastewater disposal. As if to highlight the interconnectedness of the whole coastal strip where most of his properties lie, Syre just this week laid out a plan he's been working on with former Bellingham mayor Ken Hertz: a "Millenium Trail" for hikers and bikers, running all the way from White Rock to Larrabee State Park on the Skagit County line south of Bellingham.

At the rate things are going, the Millenium Trail could be completed before the Blaine sewage treatment plant. Most of the government agencies responsible for avoiding exactly the kind of scandal produced by the excavation there—among them the Department of Agriculture's Rural Development Agency, the state Historic Preservation Office, and the federal Council on Historic Preservation—are devoting most of their efforts to pointing fingers at each other, not sitting down together to solve the immediate and pressing problems raised by the case. For example, what's to be done about extracting human bone and artifacts from the hundreds of truckloads of earth hauled from the sewer site and dumped six miles away? The Lummi say they want to get to work recovering that material. Unfortunately, the authorities are being more cautious with the excavation offal than they were overseeing the excavation that produced it. State historic preservation officer Allyson Brooks says that the Lummis can't lay a finger on the rubble heaps salted with fragments of their heritage until the federal Council on Historic Preservation gives them the go-ahead. The director of the CHP's western office in Denver says Brooks is mistaken; they don't have authority to issue such an order. Rural Development is wholly responsible. Rural Development can't even agree with itself: Its lawyer in Portland says the Memorandum of Agreement is still in force; its Seattle field office says it's working on a replacement.

While they wait for the government to get its act together, the Lummi have posted a watch on the dump site, so that weekend curio-hunters don't subject the material to a second round of desecration.

 
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