Community Environment

Geoduck farm hearings postponed two months due to opposition leader’s departure

Posted on March 19th, 2024 By:

Public hearings critical to the future of Taylor Shellfish’s proposed 25.5 acre geoduck farm in Burley Lagoon have been postponed by two months due to the departure of a key figure from the opponents’ side.

The rescheduled hearings will now start at 9 a.m. Tuesday, May 21 and run to Friday, May 31 (weekend and Memorial Day excluded), the Pierce County Planning and Public Works Department announced last Friday. The hearings will take place in the public meeting room of the Pierce County Public Services Building Annex, 2401 S. 35th St. in Tacoma.

The hearings were originally scheduled to begin March 20.

Groups opposed to farm request delay

In early March, groups opposed to the geoduck farm “submitted a motion requesting a 45-day continuance due to the need of their primary representative to withdraw from the case due to unforeseeable personal circumstances,” the county’s web portal for the geoduck farm proposal said.

That primary representative was Laura Hendricks, a Gig Harbor peninsula resident and director of Coalition to Protect Puget Sound Habitat. Her group works with Friends of Burley Lagoon, Tahoma Audubon Society and Friends of Pierce County in opposing the proposed geoduck-growing operation.

Hendricks could not be reached for comment. Others in the coalition declined to comment on her departure or on whether she might return to the group.

“Because of the shortness of time and the fact that we had to notify the county and (Taylor Shellfish) we had to request a continuance,” said Karen McDonnell, who lives on the lagoon and is part of the group opposing the geoduck farm.

“We are shuffling our responsibilities and getting ourselves ready for our meeting before the hearing examiner at the end of May,” McDonnell said.

Concerns about plastics

Shelton-based Taylor Shellfish already grows manila clams and oysters in Burley Lagoon, which has been home to shellfish farming for nearly a century. Opponents charge that geoduck farming is a higher-intensity form of aquaculture that threatens to damage the bay biologically, ecologically and aesthetically.

In geoduck farming, the clams spend their first two years in plastic tubes that jut several inches out of the mud at intervals of 1 to 1.5 feet, or up to 43,560 tubes per acre. Opponents decry the heavy use of plastics in raising geoducks, including the tubes, high density polyethylene (HDPE) tube caps, predator nets and zip ties.

These materials’ degradation “results in significant release of microplastics that have probable, significant, and adverse environmental impacts that cannot be effectively mitigated by industry practices and compliances,” a hearing brief prepared by the opposing coalition charges.

The brief also cites the risk posed by the farm to threatened and endangered species in the lagoon, including the marbled murrelet and Chinook salmon. The proposed operation will destroy or prevent the return of eelgrass that provides habitat for forage fish — including sand lance, herring, anchovy and juvenile rockfish — on which larger species depend for food, it says.

How the hearings work

The hearings two months from now are scheduled to begin with a session running May 21 through May 28 (excluding the 3-day Memorial Day weekend) to consider opponents’ appeal of a final environmental impact statement (FEIS) for the geoduck farm issued by Pierce County Planning and Public Works Department in January 2023.

That FEIS was largely favorable toward Taylor Shellfish’s proposal. Opponents will argue it used flawed science and misapplied the law, and that it did not respond adequately to questions and comments submitted in response to an earlier draft EIS.

Members of the public cannot comment during this portion of the May hearings, but they can attend and observe the proceedings in person or via Zoom.

The final day of the hearings, May 29, will focus on the Shoreline Substantial Development Permit/ Shoreline Conditional Use Permit that Taylor Shellfish needs to move forward with proposed geoduck farm. Members of the public will be allowed to testify one time each during this hearing. The examiner will likely limit testimony to three minutes (or similar) based on the number of people wishing to testify.

County department recommends approval

In a staff report prepared for the FEIS appeal scheduled to begin May 21, the Planning & Public Works Department stated that in the opponents’ appeal brief, many of the FEIS’s alleged errors “are interrelated and/or provide no specifics as to how the EIS is deficient (other than alleging it is).” The report goes on to respond to many of the brief’s allegations, including the charge that the FEIS did not adequately address the use of plastics in geoduck farming.

In a second staff report, prepared for the Shoreline Substantial Development Permit/ Shoreline Conditional Use Permit hearing scheduled for May 29, the department recommended “approval of both shoreline permits subject to the mitigation contained in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS)” and other conditions listed in the report.

Both portions of the hearings serve as input to Deputy Hearing Examiner Sharon Rice’s decision on whether the county should grant Taylor Shellfish its shoreline substantial development and shoreline conditional use permits, which it needs to move forward.

If the Hearing Examiner grants approval, the state Department of Ecology must then OK the shoreline conditional use permit. DOE’s decision can be appealed to the Washington Shoreline Hearings Board.