Fate of Tramp Harbor dock is in question

Contamination and safety concerns have plagued the dock for years.

The historic Tramp Harbor dock has remained open to the public in spite of warnings posted about its structural integrity, but eventually, nearly half of it will have to come down, according to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Moreover, conditions of an aquatic lands lease with the state agency may ultimately push the Vashon Park District, which owns the dock, to set a course for its partial or complete demolition.

At the Jan. 8 meeting of the park board, Executive Director Elaine Ott-Rocheford shared that the DNR has rejected every modification the park district’s attorney has proposed for the lease of the state-owned tidelands under a 160-foot portion of the Tramp Harbor dock. The prior 12-year lease agreement expired in 2013, and negotiations between the district and the state have only occurred intermittently since then. Meanwhile, assessments in 2014 and 2016 found the dock to be in poor condition, with nearly a dozen of the 96 pilings holding it above Puget Sound thought to be approaching failure.

One of the attorney’s proposed modifications to the lease concerned the district’s liability for existing contamination from the pilings, which contain creosote. In the past, DNR and the district have weighed various alternatives to demolition that could be permitted, such as wrapping the pilings, which would be less expensive than replacing them. But in her office, Ott-Rocheford said there had been no momentum behind those ideas for some time.

When King County gave the approximately 340-foot dock to the district in 1995, it did not sign over the aquatic lands lease it had with the state, leaving it unclear whether the district had agreed to accept all outstanding liability for the dock, including the risk of contamination it poses. For the new agreement, the district’s attorney asked for a provision to waive some of its environmental liability, pending an evaluation by the Department of Ecology to determine what part the district, county and state could have in cleaning up the site. But under the terms of the draft lease which DNR returned to Ott-Rocheford late last month, the state would be fully protected against liability from the release of hazardous substances — and the district would incur all responsibility.

“We would be responsible for any environmental contamination that results from the presence or use of the dock. If we remove pilings and a hazardous substance is released, we could be liable,” she told the board.

The lease further stipulates that the portion of the dock over state tidelands must be completely replaced within 11 years. It would also have to be built shorter so as not to interfere with a known geoduck tract nearby.

Ott-Rocheford said the district’s attorney also took issue with the state’s overall accountability for the dock under the latest proposed lease — the park district would have to agree to fully protect DNR from nearly every kind of liability, with very limited exceptions.

“Even if there was partial negligence of DNR, we would be 100 percent liable,” said Ott-Rocheford to the board.

Two other requirements imposed on the district, should it agree to the state’s terms, had commissioners dismayed. The district would have to guarantee $130,000 to the state for the length of the lease in the form of a security bond, letter of credit or savings account assignment.

“It’s like a little guarantee that that portion of the dock would be taken care of whether we do anything about it or not,” said Ott- Rocheford, adding that the district could obtain a security bond through its insurance provider.

The state also ordered that the far portion of the dock be subject to a structural assessment by an engineer within 180 days of signing the lease and that all the identified deficiencies of the current structure be corrected at the district’s expense. Ott-Rocheford shared her frustration that making any improvements to the dock as it is, such as replacing two pilings known to be the most vulnerable, would surely compel the district to replace all of them.

“We already know that at the last report, there were 11 pilings that were marked as issues,” she said. “If you’re going to replace two pilings, why would we do two and not the whole thing? So it’s a problem.”

The next steps for Ott- Rocheford will be to continue negotiations, update the board and to consult legislators in Olympia for help; Ott-Rocheford expressed that the district would not sign the new lease anytime before then, and DNR has not set a due date. She also said she had received word from DNR that the agency is taking efforts to search for construction funds for the dock, but it is not certain to what end they would be used.

“If the risk seems reasonable, and if in discussing all of these issues with the board, if they instruct me to really look at funding options, I think my next call will be to (Sen.) Joe Nguyen,” said Ott-Rocheford.

Last year, she said the board had asked her for information about what options the district would have should they choose to close out the lease with the state; doing so would initiate the procedure to remove the portion of the dock over state aquatic lands. But she emphasized that it was not the board’s intention to surrender the dock or close out the lease.

“We have not come close to considering that option in the past, nor are we there now. Our attempts to alter the lease were those recommended changes from our attorney. We have never come close to terminating,” she said.

In an email, aquatic land manager Jessica Olmstead said that DNR fully endorses the use and access benefits the Tramp Harbor dock provides to on and off-islanders alike, but she stated that it will take funding to intervene on behalf of the aging pier.

“Unfortunately, DNR currently does not have any funds allotted for construction or reconstruction of a dock. We certainly support any efforts by the Park District to look for funding opportunities through the Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO) or other grant funds that support public access,” she wrote.

Creosote removal projects across the state are funded annually by the Washington Legislature, and according to DNR spokesperson Joe Smillie, funding for removal of the entire dock could be secured through the state budget process. But there is no assurance the dock would rank among other projects competing for funding, he said, and financial support for reconstruction of a dock in Tramp Harbor would have to come from elsewhere.

He added that a direct appeal to legislators or the RCO would be the other option.

“We are trying to work with [Vashon Park District] to get some grant funding,” he said, adding that the dock is worthy of the agency’s time. “We’re looking to work with them because it is a valuable asset.”

The $130,000 financial obligation stipulated in the new lease, he added, was made with the awareness that it was beyond the district’s means. But Smillie said it always comes down to the numbers.

“It’s fairly standard in removing a structure like this, in case something goes wrong like they dredge up a bunch of mercury. It’s to help offset the cleanup cost. We’re also not particularly flush with cash,” he said.

According to Smillie, however, because of the contaminants that may be present at the site — the Standard Oil Company transported its products from the dock for 60 years — it is long past time something is done about the dock.

“We want it to come out, and we don’t want it to worsen the problem,” he said.

Throughout the year, the Vashon Audubon Society records sightings of marine birds from the dock and surrounding area. Julie Burman, Vashon Audubon president, said it remains a fantastic spot to spend an afternoon.

“We know it’s a great place to get out and bird, and it’s been enjoyed by a generation of islanders both for fishing and enjoyment,” she said.

Burman is a former park district commissioner and said she both understands and appreciates the need to carefully steward tax dollars and funding. Whatever the future holds for the Tramp Harbor dock, she said, islanders are not ready to let go.

“Everybody on Vashon loves to go out on that dock.”