SEATTLE — The agency created to build a $5-billion regional transit system wants to excavate and fill roughly three acres of Puget Sound --a move that could harm threatened chinook salmon.
Sound Transit's proposal to fill 2.72 acres to make room for new commuter railroad tracks has been approved by two major government agencies, even though federal rules prohibit harming chinook salmon habitat.
The plan still has to clear several hurdles before implementation, including approval from the National Marine Fisheries Service, but a fisheries service biologist on Sound Transit's payroll is in charge of making the initial decision on the project for her agency.
"We're still hoping we can mitigate to little or no impact on the salmon," said Denny Fleenor, a spokesman for Sound Transit. "We're still looking at what we can do. The ideal would be to have no impact, obviously."
Sound Transit has been talking with government officials for more than a year about its plans to expand already existing tracks between north Seattle and Everett.
The tracks, which run along the edge of Puget Sound below steep, unstable cliffs, have been washed out over the years by mudslides, leaving only one set in a one-mile section south of Mukilteo and a 1.9-mile section south of Edmonds.
Sound Transit wants to expand the two sections of track, adding another set so they can handle the increased train traffic. The tracks, owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe, already handle trains from Amtrak and freight lines.
After initial protests, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved a revised plan. The final environmental impact statement issued last December also got a nod from the Federal Transit Administration.
It's hard to determine the long-term effect of the project on salmon, said zoology professor Robert Paine of the University of Washington.
"What neither the National Marine Fisheries Service nor the state nor the public should accept is the nibbling away at salmon or other species habitat until we've passed the point of no return," he said. "And this is nibbling."
Young chinook and four other salmon species feed on smaller fish near the shore, following the shallow water as they prepare to leave Puget Sound for the ocean. Salmon forced into deeper waters become prey for larger fish.
Sound Transit's own environmental impact statement showed the project will cause a potential long-term "loss of intertidal habitat . . . important in the growth and survival of juvenile chinook salmon."
Construction will stir up more sediment in the water, scour eelgrass and kill or displace organisms the salmon eat, the document said, as well as risk potential hazardous-materials spills.
No construction work would be done when salmon are migrating from March 15 to June 15, the document said.
To mitigate damage, the agency proposes buying part of an old oil-tank farm at nearby Point Wells and excavating the land to create a new tidal marsh. Other proposals include improving channels to two existing marshes so salmon can reach them from the sound.
An earlier proposal was scaled back after government officials objected to filling 35 acres to build seven miles of track, including three sections of "passing tracks" sought by Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
Burlington Northern's D.J. Mitchell, an assistant vice president of passenger operations, said the railroad will seek other ways to accommodate rail traffic.
The EPA will not block the project, said Rick Parkin, manager of the geographic implementation unit in Seattle. An agency letter said Sound Transit had not addressed alternatives as requested but noted the fill amount had decreased.
"To me it's an absolute win for the environment rather than a loss" because of minimized impact, said Helen Knoll, regional administrator of the Federal Transit Administration.
Her agency's document approving the environmental report said the project "may affect but is not likely to adversely affect" chinook salmon, coho salmon, bull trout and bald eagles.
Sound Transit must also seek approval from other federal and state agencies, as well as local jurisdictions. Fleenor expects the entire approval process to take six months to a year.
At the fisheries service office in Lacey, biologist Laura Hamilton, who will make the initial decision on whether the project affects threatened salmon, said her business card says National Marine Fisheries Service but her paycheck is signed by Sound Transit.
Hamilton said there is a conflict of interest, but her supervisors at the fisheries service will review her work.
"It's a way Sound Transit has of getting their consultations higher priority rather than being at the bottom of the pile" because there are too many projects for biologists to review, she said.
Steve Landino, Washington habitat branch chief for the fisheries service, said Hamilton is one of about 10 people from other agencies who have worked at the fisheries service.