Newsletter: Warehouse Pits Locals Against Developers. At Stake is the South Tacoma Aquifer.

Opposing forces are prepared for battle in South Tacoma. In one corner are environmentalists with a proposal for an economic green zone to generate a more sustainable future. In the other corner are industrialists looking to build one of the largest warehouses in the world that would endanger the South Tacoma aquifer.

Developers rarely aim to build over an aquifer that’s important to a city’s water supply. The South Tacoma Aquifer is currently a “backup water” resource, but is predicted to be relied upon much more in coming years as global warming engenders prolonged droughts. Bridge Industrial out of Chicago wants to convert 150 acres of former railroad land that is now an EPA Brownfields site into a mega warehouse complex that would put 50 football fields of impervious pavement over some of the last green space in the area. Opponents argue the project would pollute the aquifer.

Land upon which Bridge Industrial plans to build a mega-warehouse. It would sit directly atop the aquifer.
Photo: Michelle Mood, 350 Tacoma.

Leading the opposition is the South Tacoma Neighborhood Council (a proud A2 member) led by Heidi Stephens. Along with Tim Smith, she is the founder of STEGZ, the South Tacoma Economic Green Zone. The goal of STEGZ is to update the Groundwater Protection District’s code to protect the aquifer and attract non-polluting businesses with eco-friendly products and services. Stephens and Smith formulated their proposal to safeguard the critical recharge area.

Protecting Critical Aquifer Recharge Areas

A critical aquifer recharge area is one that’s both essential for drinking water and vulnerable to contamination. Washington’s Department of Ecology says the designation aims “to protect a community’s drinking water by preventing pollution and maintaining supply.” Yet the Department says it has no jurisdiction in such matters, which has fallen to Tacoma’s Planning and Development Services Department. Conflict over the new warehouse was not inevitable.

Once upon a time, warehouses were veritable temples of commerce that enhanced the urban fabric. Louis Sullivan’s Marshall Field Wholesale Store in Chicago, designed in 1885, was inspired by Romanesque cathedrals and Renaissance palazzos. The Chicago Merchandise Mart, built in 1930 in Art Deco style, is an architectural wonder, striding the Chicago River like a Colossus. But today, most warehouses are featureless affairs located in suburban or rural sacrifice zones. That’s clearly the case in Tacoma, and why it needs to be stopped.

“The intended role of the groundwater protection district overlay is clearly not this city’s priority, although it should be,” Smith says. “The City of Tacoma continues to sidestep, subvert or supersede those protections for purely for-profit business interests, which is why the groundwater code needs to be updated.”

To better understand the science involved, Anthropocene Alliance introduced Stephens and Smith to the eminent hydrologist Steven Emerman. After carefully reviewing the site and development proposal, he concurred there should be a moratorium on further development over the aquifer until the groundwater code is updated and additional studies conducted.

“The current hydrogeological studies are mostly just unjustified opinions accompanied by hundreds of pages of computer output and similar material,” Emerman says. He cited a 188-page assessment prepared by Terra Associates, containing less than seven pages of text. Terra acknowledged the proposed development would result in a decrease of permeable surface area that may impact aquifer recharge but concluded on-site water quality treatment “would adequately mitigate any potential impacts to current on-site aquifer recharge.”

“There is no attempt to connect the information to the opinion, so the opinion remains entirely unjustified,” Emerman says of Terra’s conclusions.

Speculative Design/4-building option for Warehouse, subject to change, from Bridgepoint Tacoma 2mm.

Earthjustice weighs in with multiple concerns about the South Tacoma aquifer

The nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice issued an extensive critique of the warehouse plan, revealing that developers’ estimated increase of 5,000 daily vehicle trips per weekday “likely reflects less than half” the real number. “Importantly, these burdens would fall on a largely low-income and BIPOC South Tacoma community that is already overburdened by environmental harms,” Earthjustice wrote to the City of Tacoma.

Dr. Brian Moench, Board President of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, who’s fighting a similar battle against a project in Salt Lake City told me: “These massive distribution warehouses are by their very nature designed to be the destination of massive numbers of diesel truck trips, so they’re invariably at the epicenter of diesel pollution and leach toxic chemicals” into the soil. He labels such projects “diesel death zones”, a term coined by residents in Southern California’s Imperial Valley/Inland Empire area, an early hot spot in the mega warehouse trend where Amazon is adding another five-story, robotics mega-warehouse.

Residents are expecting Tacoma’s Planning Director Peter Huffman to issue his decision on the critical aquifer recharge area soon. Huffman could determine the warehouse would have no impact, or rule that a full Environmental Impact Statement must be conducted.

“The only institution standing in the way [of a polluted aquifer] is Tacoma’s Planning and Development Services Department,” 350 Tacoma’s Michelle Mood reported in February. “Will the city do the right thing?”

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Greg M. Schwartz

Greg M. Schwartz

Greg is an award-winning investigative reporter who specializes in covering environmental justice issues with a track record for shining a light on crooked science and regulatory capture. He has a Master's degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from Kent State University in his native region of Northeast Ohio, where he also served on the May 4th Task Force. He has spent most of his adult life in California, where he's also a freelance music journalist with a preference for socially conscious rock 'n' roll bands.

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