Property Owners, State, Settle Fast Ferry Lawsuit

Property Owners, State, Settle Fast Ferry Lawsuit

SEATTLE – The State of Washington and property owners along Rich Passage today announced a settlement in a lawsuit claiming waves from high-speed Seattle-to-Bremerton ferries caused environmental and property damage to beaches and bulkheads in Rich Passage and Port Orchard Bay.

The state has agreed to pay property owners nearly $4.5 million for damage caused by the ferries' wake, as well as to continue monitoring shorelines for any additional impact. In exchange, property owners will allow the Washington State Ferry System (WSF) to operate the ferries at 16 knots through the passage and the bay.

The agreement does not limit the property owners' ability to file suit in the future if damages continue.

"It has been a long struggle for the property owners," said Sean Matt, the attorney representing Rich Passage property owners. "Almost immediately after the fast ferries began running, the property owners alerted the Washington State Ferries to the problems, but no one would listen, and there were some who ridiculed their claims. Now, after over three years of hard-fought litigation, the state is listening, and agreeing with them."

Matt noted that while the settlement should cover the repairs of most of the physical damages caused by the ferries, perhaps the most enduring benefit will be awareness of the issue and the protection of sensitive shorelines. "Thanks to the property owners, the state is now keenly aware of the ecological impact the ferries caused, literally scouring the beaches of sand and gravel, plant and sea life," Matt noted. "Moving forward, the state will need to pay much closer attention to the effects on the environment, and we hope it will."

Soon after the Chinook began high-speed service, residents along the route began reporting large swells and waves scouring beaches and crashing over bulkheads, in some cases sending seawater encroaching well beyond bulkheads built to stop it.

The original lawsuit, filed on March 9, 1999 by several Rich Passage residents, claimed that powerful waves generated by the Chinook ferry were removing or destroying beach aggregate, kelp beds, shellfish, topsoil, bulkheads and other structures and vegetation along the Seattle-to-Bremerton ferry run.

On July 26, 1999, Judge Glenna Hall issued a ruling that WSF must immediately slow the high-speed ferry Chinook to 12 knots in Rich Passage and Port Orchard Bay pending full compliance with the State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA). In March 2000, the Washington Supreme Court overturned the preliminary injunction and allowed WSF to resume high-speed service along the entire Seattle - Bremerton run, but did not interfere with the ongoing SEPA review.

The SEPA study released in August of 2001 concluded that wave action from ferries traveling at 34 knots caused probable environmental and property damage along the narrow passage, and recommended the ferries slow to 12 knots through the passage.

The SEPA study noted, in part, that waves from high-speed ferries caused 'substantial changes to several beach profiles' and 'statistically significant decreases in biological abundances in several regions of Rich Passage.

The case was settled after mediation sessions led by retired King County Superior Court Judge Terrance Carroll. The trial was scheduled to begin May 20.

The Chinook was introduced to the public on May 15, 1998, and was in full-time service two weeks later. Its sister ship, the Snohomish, went into service in late 1999. Rich Passage, which lies mid-way through the Seattle-to-Bremerton commute, and Port Orchard Bay, took the brunt of the ferries' 24 daily passes at a speed of 34 knots.

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