Michael Wagar Commentary: WDFW Backtracks on TransAlta Land Donations; Time for Local Negotiations

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A few weeks ago I wrote a column titled “TransAlta Reneging on Promise of Using Mine Land for Economic Development.”

I detailed decades of TransAlta promises to give land from its 10,000 acres of reclaimed mine property to Lewis County for economic development. Then, for dubious reasons, TransAlta out of the blue in November of 2020 stated it was about to donate the land to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife for a wildlife refuge, damn the promises of significant land donations to the county.

Many leaders slammed the proposed donation, from U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler to the county’s mayors to the county commissioners. It appears the effort to give the land to WDFW has stalled after a massive outcry from county leaders and citizens.

Fortunately, thankfully, righteously, WDFW on Tuesday sent a letter to the Lewis County Board of Commissioners stating, “We are writing this letter to clarify our approach regarding this process. We want to clarify that we are not actively working to move this acquisition forward currently.”

The letter starts out with a history of the WDFW and TransAlta’s unilateral proposal. “Unilateral” is defined as “doing or deciding something without first asking or agreeing with another person, group or country: “The law is part of a disturbing trend to act unilaterally without regard to the legitimate interests of others.”

Which is what TransAlta was attempting to do — “without regard to the legitimate interests of others.”

WDFW in its letter to the county commissioners, stated the process on the proposal centered on public comment. WDFW heard comments in opposition to the proposal focused on loss of property tax revenue, problems with putting the land under the Endangered Species Act, potentially negatively impacting neighboring commercial and industrial operations.

The letter goes on to state, “It is also clear that Lewis County has concerns about economic impacts and rezoning of the mine property. Those questions are outside of WDFW’s scope and are better addressed by TransAlta and Lewis County.”

In other words, TransAlta can’t go against the will of Lewis County leaders and turn a deal with WDFW. They must negotiate outcomes with the county. They must sit down with local leaders and develop best alternatives for the land in question, with a specific background of past promises of large land banks for quality industrial development.

“Our hope,” WDFW wrote in the letter, “is that the local communities and TransAlta can continue conversations and come to some shared understanding, at which point WDFW hopes the county commissioners will contact us directly. We are interested in developing robust community engagement about this donation and opportunity, which we anticipate will be a years-long process.”

The WDFW has it right. This is up to discussions and negotiations among TransAlta and the community, not a side deal with WDFW. In addition, the letter states TransAlta is still under requirements to finish its mine reclamation work, which costs millions of dollars to complete. That perhaps is why TransAlta wanted to just grift the land to the state, in an attempt to not complete the work to finish the mine reclamation project.

That WDFW has stepped back in its proposal to claim all of the mine property and place it in a wildlife refuge is an appropriate response to the public comments and opposition to the gifting of the thousands of acres.

The next step is for TransAlta to take a step back, and realize its WDFW proposal was a selfish effort to save corporate dollars. It is time for TransAlta to once again put the community first, as it has for the past several decades until this latest backslap.

TransAlta needs to re-embrace its original promise to donate some of its land to industrial and commercial development which in turn will bring a much-needed tax base and employment jobs to Lewis County — the original promise and idea of the TransAlta landbank donation to the county.

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Michael Wagar is a former president, publisher and executive editor of The Chronicle.

 

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