RENTON — In rural King County, on the banks of the Cedar River, lies a long-simmering conflict between industry and the environment.
The county has spent millions of dollars restoring this stretch of river, adding and removing levees, trying to entice native threatened Chinook salmon to return to spawn.
But 13 years ago, in a little-noticed amendment to a massive piece of mandatory legislation, the Metropolitan King County Council changed the zoning for one specific parcel of land about 50 yards from the riverbank.
And so, in 2016, Lakeside Industries paid $9.5 million — five times the assessed value — for the unremarkable 25-acre parcel, intending to build an asphalt plant on the riverside site.
After years of moratoriums and delays, Lakeside’s permit application for the plant is pending before the county’s Department of Local Services. A decision is expected this month. Lakeside, in application materials, says it will begin work on the plant “promptly after permit approval.” A group of local residents who have been fighting the project for years says they’ll challenge any permit approval in court.
And the most closely involved government officials? They don’t want the plant built either, but say their hands are tied.
King County Executive Dow Constantine was on the Metropolitan King County Council in 2008, when the zoning change passed. The change, made as part of the county’s comprehensive plan update, shifted the parcel’s zoning from rural, with only one home allowed every 5 acres, to industrial.
He was the only member of the County Council to vote against it, saying he was concerned the zoning change would let the site “be significantly expanded.” But now, as the leader of the county’s executive branch, he says his duty is to enforce the laws of the county, and he won’t meddle with the permitting decision.
“Executive Constantine has opposed this project every step of the way,” said Chase Gallagher, a spokesperson. “The County Council voted for the rezoning, and did not extend its own moratorium in 2017. Executive Constantine doesn’t have the ability to pick and choose which of the lawfully passed ordinances the departments implement.”
That moratorium was the work of Councilmember Reagan Dunn, who represents the district of Southeast King County in question, and wants to stop the plant from being built.
“The upper part of the Cedar river is the source for drinking water for the 1.4 million people in the greater Seattle area, and the Cedar river provides aquatic habitat for chinook salmon, coho salmon, sockeye salmon, kokanee, winter steelhead, bull trout and coastal cutthroat,” said the 2017 legislation, which put a six-month hold on development at the site.
A county study, required by the moratorium, found that the variety of environmental regulations in place are enough to “sufficiently minimize, mitigate or otherwise address land use and environmental impacts that may occur” from the asphalt plant.
Still, groups from the Sierra Club to the Cedar River Council to the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe have opposed, or expressed concerns with, the project over the years.
“We’re extremely concerned about the potential pollution that will come,” said Max Prinsen, chair of the Cedar River Council, a public-private group that advocates for the river basin’s health. “We’re pretty much opposed to it.”
Sung Yang, Constantine’s former chief of staff, has been lobbying the county government on behalf of Lakeside Industries since 2018. That year, in disclosure forms, Yang wrote that he was lobbying on Dunn’s legislation that would extend the moratorium.
The legislation to extend the moratorium was never debated publicly, never voted on and never made it out of committee.
Three Lakeside executives, in the past two months, have given modest donations, totaling $500, to Constantine’s reelection campaign.
Dunn, this month, said approving the permit would be a “mistake of monumental proportions.” In a letter to the permitting director, he said “its legacy would be traced back to your office forever.”
But Dunn was on the County Council in 2008, when the zoning change was made. And, unlike Constantine, he voted for the change, which passed 8-1.
He says he doesn’t remember the specifics about the vote, but regrets it. He says he was approached by Martin Durkan Jr., who was, at the time, a lobbyist for Sunset Materials, which owned the property.
Durkan, Dunn said, asked him to vote for the zoning change.
“He talked me through what they wanted to do and what he wanted to do was not an asphalt plant,” Dunn said, although he doesn’t remember the specifics of the proposal. “In my district an asphalt plant would have been a big red flag.”
“One of the things that I’ve learned over my career since then, is you can’t just take what a lobbyist tells you at face value,” Dunn said.
Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, who proposed the zoning change in 2008, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Durkan (the brother of Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan) said he was hired by Sunset Materials, a landscaping supply company, to get the change so that their business would line up with their zoning. The land had a decades-long history of semi-commercial, industrial use that didn’t conform with its rural zoning designation.
The parcel was a coal mine in the 1920s, and a county-owned maintenance facility for decades, before Sunset used it turn debris into mulch and soil.
“I don’t think there was any opposition at the time,” Durkan said. “It was no big deal.”
Sunset remained in business at the site for eight more years after the zoning change, until they sold to Lakeside in 2016.
“There was nothing unusual about it, and I’ve done some damn unusual deals,” Durkan said. “Nobody had any idea there’d ever be an asphalt plant there.”
Fight not over
The site today is not much to look at. Three power poles punctuate a flat, weedy lot, with a few piles of soil, remnants of the hulking mounds that were there a decade ago. Clover, daisies, blackberries and foxglove rim the site.
It’s separated from the Cedar River by about 150 feet — a five-lane highway and a bike path. The river flows wide and gentle, the result of previous county-led remediation efforts to ease flood risks and improve fish habitat.
It’s also only about 5 miles from Interstate 405. In a region that continues to grow, asphalt — to build roads, to fix roads, to pave — needs to be made somewhere, and not too far away, because it has to stay hot in transit.
Asphalt is made by combining sand and gravel, at high temperatures, with a (usually) petroleum-based binder.
Lakeside, which has more than a dozen asphalt plants in Western Washington and Oregon, intends to build its facility on 9 of the 25 acres in Renton. The company says it will return to natural conditions 6 acres of the site that are currently paved or hard surfaces and that it will “collect and treat 100% of the stormwater from the developed portion of the site.”
Protesters’ concerns include: Leaks, noise pollution, light pollution, increased truck traffic and the effect on salmon recovery.
“It’s going to pollute the Cedar River,” said Eric Hudson, a semiretired former Boeing engineer who lives in the area. “There’s no way they’re going to contain all the stormwater runoff. And asphalt plants, because they’re hot, their exhaust goes up in the air, it has particulate matter, it goes up in the air and it’s going to land in the river.”
Lakeside disagrees. Their emissions are “primarily steam,” the company said. And in response to concerns from the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, two scientists hired by the company even said that building the asphalt plant would improve salmon habitat.
The Muckleshoot had asked for a formal environmental impact study on the project, but Lakeside argued it was not necessary. Lakeside said that construction would improve runoff problems that currently exist at the site and that their first task, once project work begins, will be to replace petroleum-contaminated soil currently at the site with clean fill.
“As a result, any effects on salmonid species will be beneficial rather than adverse,” the two Lakeside-hired scientists wrote.
Several other Lakeside asphalt facilities are polluted, mostly with petroleum, according to the state Department of Ecology. Those include the company’s plants in Fremont, Aberdeen, Kent and Centralia, and its former plant in Bellevue, although most of those sites were polluted before Lakeside acquired them.
“Lakeside has independently and proactively initiated work to investigate and clean up each of these properties to the full extent specified by current regulations in a cooperative way that didn’t require enforcement actions,” said Karen Deal, the company’s environmental and land use director.
The Sierra Club’s Washington branch, in protesting the project, wrote that proposed environmental mitigations were “grossly insufficient” to protect the three streams and three wetlands that are on the site and that flow into the Cedar River.
“The Cedar River is a salmon-bearing water body and its banks a Shoreline of statewide Significance,” the Sierra Club wrote to the County Council. “We emphasize that much public money has been spent over the years to preserve this environment to sustain and bolster the healthy return of salmon to the greater watershed.”
A traffic study found that the plant will require 460 truck trips each weekday. Lakeside points out that the landscaping business also required truck trips, so it’s an increase of 295 trips a day.
“Trucks and heavy equipment have been accessing the site from SR 169 for many decades,” Lakeside wrote, noting that roadway improvements, including a new highway lane, had been approved by the state.
Bob Baker, the administrator of the group Citizens to Stop the SR169 Asphalt Plant, lives about 1,000 feet from the site. He worries about the truck traffic and the smells (“Lakeside is planning on adding new odor-reducing technology,” the company says) and the lights confusing migrating salmon smolt. He’s worried about fires and carcinogens. He says his group will file a lawsuit if King County approves the permit.
“The list just goes on and on and on as far as why we don’t want it,” Baker said. “It’s an absolute hazard.”