Kitsap County Residents File Suit To End Shoreline Damage On High Speed Ferry Runs


SEATTLE - A group of Kitsap County residents filed a class action lawsuit late Tuesday March 9 against the Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and the Washington State Ferries (WSF) claiming negligent operation of the new high speed, passenger-only ferry Chinook and violations of the Shoreline Management Act.  Residents claim that powerful waves generated by the Chinook are removing or destroying beach aggregate, kelp beds, shellfish, topsoil, concrete bulkheads and other structures and vegetation along the Seattle-to-Bremerton ferry run.

The suit seeks injunctive relief to slow the ferry in the compromised areas, and damages to pay for the residents' lost property value and repair costs for protective structures that have been drastically damaged since the WSF first introduced the Chinook to Puget Sound. According to plaintiffs' attorney Steve Berman, the residents decided to take legal action after written complaints and appeals to slow the Chinook were answered by WSF officials with form letters and a proposal to establish a "fact-finding committee" that would spend at least nine months examining an already obvious problem.

"The shoreline habitat and structures along the Bremerton Ferry run are deteriorating at an alarming rate," said Berman. "If we wait nine months or more for a committee to reach a conclusion, the Chinook will have made at least 6,000 more trips, and irreplaceable shoreline, both public and private, may be completely washed into the Sound."

According to Berman, the abrasive mud and sand churned in the waves- coupled with the physical energy a wave gathers as it rolls to shore- is not just destructive, but extremely fast acting. One resident has watched his massive concrete bulkhead rapidly corrode and crack, and claims more than three vertical feet of sand, and the shellfish living in it, have disappeared from the shoreline abutting his property since the Chinook began service nine months ago. Many residents believe that sinkholes now appearing on their land will eventually threaten their homes if the WSF will not compromise and slow the ferry.

In 1990, WSF introduced the first passenger-only ferry Tyee, which can cross the Sound at 17 knots or faster. After a six-week stint of operation, complaints of enormous wake-wash erosion prompted WSF officials to impose a "no-harm" speed limit on all ferries, which was 12 knots for the Tyee.

The Chinook was introduced to the public on May 15, 1998, and was in full-time service two weeks later. Rich Passage, which lies mid-way through the ferry's Seattle-to-Bremerton commute, takes the brunt of the Chinook's 17 daily passes at a speed of 34 knots (39 mph), more than three times the Tyee "no-harm" limit. Ferries officials claim that computer modeling of the Chinook at 34 knots yielded a wake that will do no harm. But residents have documented that actual wake performance through Rich Passage to Bremerton is very different, and destructive.

Soon after the Chinook began high-speed service, residents along the route began reporting large swells and waves crashing over 10-foot bulkheads, sending seawater encroaching more than 15 feet past bulkheads built to stop it. The wave action has removed topsoil and undermined protective bulkheads and building foundations. More troubling, according to Berman, is the impact on the shoreline ecosystem. "Clam beds, kelp fields and other sea life have simply been scoured away," he said.

Residents believe that reducing the ferry to 11 knots through the narrow passage may prevent most of the aggressive wave wash. But, according to the lawsuit, WSF officials refuse to slow the ferry in the area from Rich Passage to Bremerton despite their knowledge of damage, constituting negligence.

"If a Metro bus were regularly cutting a 12-foot path across your front lawn, cracking your front walk, and taking out your flowers and bushes, you would probably ask Metro to not just stay off your lawn, but to pay for the damage," said Berman. "These residents have asked WSF to make this wake damage stop. The WSF officials know how to make it stop, but they are refusing to take action and have said they won't even consider paying for their damage."

Bremerton, Port Orchard and Bainbridge Island residents, including the plaintiffs, were thrilled about the new speed and convenience provided by the high speed boats, and remain staunch supporters of passenger-only ferry transportation today. Their motivation for bringing the lawsuit is that the WSDOT and WSF have a responsibility to prevent damage to the states' shorelines and pay for property that public transportation operations have damaged.

WSDOT plans for additional high speed ferries in both Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands could cause extensive problems in the future. "This destruction has to stop with the Chinook, or the ecosystem damage from the planned addition of more high speed ferries will change everything we love about the natural resources in the Sound, " Berman said.

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