State supremes have hands on Chinook's throttle
June 11, 2008 · Updated 10:48 AM
"The sleek Chinook chugs between Bremerton and Seattle like a sports car relegated to the slow lane.It was built for speed. But was it built for Rich Passage?A lawsuit brought by passage landowners last March argued that the high-speed passenger ferry isn't suited to the narrow, winding waterway. They claim it erodes shoreline while whisking commuters across Puget Sound in 35 minutes.On Jan. 25, the issue was taken up by the state Supreme Court. The justices were asked to decide which should come first: Proof that the Chinook harms shoreline, or an order to slow the Chinook while the cause of the alleged shoreline harm is studied?The court's decision is expected in a few months.According to attorneys for the state and Washington State Ferries, the Chinook shouldn't be slowed until damage from the boat is proven. Although plaintiffs offered lots of evidence, no judge has deemed it proof.But according to the Rich Passage landowners' attorneys, the ferry should go slow until the state can prove its defense. The plaintiffs want to prevent environmental harm before it happens, so they say a State Environmental Policy Act review of the ferry is needed.King County Superior Court Judge Glenna Hall sided with them last August. She said the ferry system should have done a SEPA review before running the Chinook in environmentally sensetive Rich Passage. She didn't rule on what is causing shoreline erosion. That decision will be up to a jury.The Supreme Court is scrutinizing Hall's injunction slowing the Chinook until an environmental review is done. In the three-decade history of SEPA, no ferry has been subject to that kind of review. Supreme Court Justice Richard Sanders said, The problem is that the trial court (Hall) did not premise this injunction on irreparable harm. She premised it on that the state didn't comply with SEPA.And that's the bone senior assistant state attorney general Bill Williams picked with Hall's ruling. Legal standards require irreparable harm, public interest or violation of a legal right to justify an injunction. Not only were none of these standards cited by Hall, but Williams and County deputy prosecutor Jacquelyn Aufderheide said there is significant public interest in keeping passenger ferries running at full speed.Justice Phillip Talmadge argued, through questions directed at the plaintiffs' lawyer, Steve Berman, that Hall needed to determine that the Chinook more probably than not caused damage. In a written statement on her decision, Hall stated she was making no determination on that issue. Where is the irreparability of harm? Talmadge asked.Berman defended Hall's ruling by pointing out her acknowledgement of Rich Passage as an environmentally sensitive area. He reminded judges of the undisputed fact that something is causing shoreline erosion. The state's attorneys cited high tides, wind, rain and naturally shifting sands as possible culprits.Berman also played a video of waves crashing on the shore, prompting Justice Gerry Alexander to comment, It looks like Hawaii there, with all the waves.Berman said the damage to private bulkheads can be repaired, but the environmental damage is irreversible. While the state made a case for defending users of the ferries, Berman pushed his case not only for the property owners, but all Puget Sound residents who share and enjoy their environment.The outcome of the high court's decision will impact Puget Sound residents long after Washington State Ferries follows through on its promise to discontinue passenger-only ferry service in June. The ruling could force any ferry operator, public or private, to undertake a lengthy and expensive SEPA process on each of its vessels. It could bring back commuters' fast-ferry service for a short time. And it could leave both parties where they were to begin with: Preparing to argue their case before a jury."