City pays environmental groups’ legal fees
For The LOG
The City of Seward has paid $92,000 in legal fees to Trustees of Alaska, a nonprofit environmental law firm that worked on behalf of the Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance (RBCA) and Alaska Community Action on Toxics, after fighting a 5-year legal battle with those organizations over whether it was required to have obtained federal Clean Water Act storm water permits for work conducted on vessels at the Seward Small Boat Harbor and Seward Marine Industrial Center (SMIC).
U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline on Feb. 22 ordered the city to pay $92,390 to Trustees of Alaska, including $89,500 in legal fees, plus a cost award of $2,894. The plaintiffs had originally requested $144,700 in legal fees, which were reduced by 25 percent to $119,300 following the court’s examination of Trustees of Alaska billing records, and its determination that there was some overlap of billing hours between the environmental group’s case prevailing case, which found that a clean water permit was required at SMIC, and the one the group lost regarding the permit requirement for work at the small boat harbor. By then the city had ceased to lease harbor property to a private vessel repair firm, and was therefore not required to have a permit.
The city council breathed a collective sigh of relief that the case was, for the most part, concluded. Trustees of Alaska is seeking an additional payment of $25,000 for legal work fighting the city’s recent series of appeals to the court decision. That sum is still under consideration by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
City officials and council representatives remain peeved, however, that so much time and money was spent on a lawsuit over federal permit requirements, and have paid the legal fees from the current harbor enterprise fund budget, arguing that it would better have been spent on improvements to the harbor. They say the permit at SMIC allows the same kind of vessel maintenance and repair work as they had already been doing.
“So, even if the City of Seward did nothing wrong, and we got a permit to contaminate the bay, we’re still paying them $92,000, is that correct?” Councilwoman Vanta Shafer asked, prior to the council vote last Tuesday, that only she voted against, accepting the court-ordered payment.
“Yes,” said city attorney Cheryl Brooking.
The federal permit holds the city accountable to comply with requirements that are meant to assure a clean marine environment, countered RBCA Activism Director Russ Maddox afterward. After informing the city that it needed to obtain the required permits, the groups waited 18 months prior to filing their lawsuit, he said. But the city chose to believe it did not need the permits and to fight a loosing case for many more years, thus unnecessarily spending taxpayers money in litigation, he said.
“RBCA is glad that these issues are nearly complete, but is disappointed that the city is still unable to understand that the boat repair operations were occurring illegally,” said Maddox.