Ask an elected leader in Lewis County about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and you’re likely to hear some complaints. Like many tales of bureaucratic woe, the stories often center around permitting delays and poor communication, issues that have hampered public works projects and development.
Much of that frustration is centered around the Seattle District, which many believe is to blame for the Corps’ poor reputation in Southwest Washington. The Corps is responsible for handling permits under the National Environmental Policy Act, the blanket federal statute that covers a wide range of projects. It must determine whether proposed work will have an environmental impact, studying alternatives and possible mitigation options.
That NEPA review process is where many say their projects have gotten bogged down, a concern they’ve taken to congressional leaders. Staff members for Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray and Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, met with Seattle Corps leaders recently, delivering a stern message, if not an ultimatum.
“Folks have had difficulty in getting timely permits, good communication and good customer service,” said Dena Horton, Cantwell’s Southwest Washington outreach director.
Horton said the congressional staffers had a chance to “lay the cards on the table” with both the Seattle District and the Corps’ Northwest Division, which oversees the district. She spoke Friday at a gathering of Lewis County leaders, including county commissioners, staff and mayors from most of the county’s cities and towns.
She credited the local leaders with helping to apply pressure on the Corps, saying “that did actually make an impact. The Northwest Division is now watching the Seattle Corps, as are the congressional offices.”
What frustrates many who have dealt with the Seattle District is that permits processed in the Portland District seem to move much more quickly, which Horton said the Corps itself affirmed with an independent review, showing “deficiencies” in Seattle. That has led some locals to push for a boundary change, moving Southwest Washington into the Portland District. Horton said congressional leaders have put that option on the table as motivation for Seattle to improve.
“They know that if they don’t quickly course correct, that we do have the option to look at legislative options for potentially redrawing the boundaries for the Portland District to include Southwest Washington,” she said.
Amid that local frustration, the Corps is holding a series of outreach events throughout Southwest Washington’s counties. On Feb. 20, Corps leaders will host the Lewis County meeting in Centralia at the Timberland Library.
“This is part of our overall strategy to be present in the communication for the folks who come to us for permits, to have some transparency for what the regulatory process is, to make sure people have faces and names,” said Bob Thomas, a regulatory branch section chief for the Corps.
Thomas attended the meeting in which congressional staff voiced their issues with the Corps, and he said he’s aware of “historic concerns” in Southwest Washington.
“At the meeting and in the preparation for that meeting, the District and Division leadership certainly take the concerns seriously,” he said. “They're interested in what the local perspective is.”
Part of the Corps’ response has been to increase staffing by about 25 percent in the Seattle District, allowing for more efficient workloads. Horton said that has allowed the District to decrease permitting backlogs and move closer to the national standard of processing 80 percent of permits within 60 days.
Dale Lewis, district issue work director for Herrera Beutler, also noted concerns with the agency during the Friday Mayors Meeting. He said that the Seattle District is working to incorporate a process for expedited permits that’s already in use by the Portland District.
“If that gets instituted later this year, that will really help with permits too,” he said.
Chehalis Mayor Dennis Dawes, a vocal critic of the Corps, said he had little faith in any promised reforms from Seattle and calling for eventual redistricting.
“The proof will be in the pudding. I’m a little bit pessimistic,” he said. “I still think our ultimate goal should be to get Southwest Washington into the Portland region. That’s the only way it’s going work. But we’ll give them a try. I don’t want to pooh-pooh the work that’s been done so far.”
Horton said the Seattle District now clearly knows expectations, but it would be premature to redraw the boundaries without giving the branch a chance to improve its standing. She noted that it would be hard to get congressional approval for the move without first showing that the Corps had been given time to try to change.
“We’re giving them time, not a whole lot of time, but some time, to get up to the level of customer service, communication and timely permits that we would expect if it was the Portland Corps,” she said.
Thomas said he found the Corps’ January outreach meeting in Skamania County to be productive, and he’s expecting the same in Lewis County as well.
“We had a good cross-section of folks who came to the meeting,” he said. “I'm anticipating we’ll get a good turnout (in Lewis County) from folks who are interested. … I'm interested in getting faces and names and improving our lines of communication.”