OLYMPIA — Two county commissioners and a tribe's lawyer urged Washington senators Monday to reject a proposal to shield 14 environmental groups from lawsuits if fish projects go awry.
Tribes and local governments are responsible for damage to private property, Upper Skagit Indian Tribe general counsel David Hawkins told the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
"The tribes are held to that standard, local governments are held to that standard and yet these (nonprofit groups) somehow are not going to be held to the same standard," he said.
House Bill 1775 would apply to 14 regional fisheries enhancement groups. The organizations are private nonprofits, but are sanctioned by the state and receive public funds.
The groups were created to bolster salmon recovery. A project that included putting logjams in a creek led to a suit by landowners against the Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group.
The group and the landowners who claimed property damage reached a confidential settlement last year, the Skagit Valley Herald reported.
Another regional fisheries enhancement group, the North Olympic Salmon Coalition, received notice that it will not be covered by insurance.
North Olympic executive director Rebecca Benjamin said Tuesday that the coalition faces losing its insurance at the end of May over a lawsuit in Jefferson County against the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
North Olympic is not a defendant in the suit, but its insurance company has paid for the defense, she said. She said she has been looking for new insurance since January.
"We can't do business without liability insurance, and we'll not be able to continue," Benjamin said.
Fish and Wildlife habitat restoration division manager Nicole Czarnomski said other fisheries enhancement groups potentially face the same problem.
"As restoration projects have become more complicated and sophisticated, it's been difficult for (the groups) to get and keep insurance to do this work on the state's behalf," she said.
The bill passed the House last month 95-2. No one opposed the legislation at House committee hearings. Skagit County Commissioner Ron Wesen said county officials weren't aware of the bill.
He and fellow Skagit County commissioner Peter Browning Fish said nonprofits are becoming too ambitious, taking on civil engineering projects that alter the flow of rivers and streams.
"The insurance industry is trying to tell us something here, and we should listen," Browning said.
Counties and diking districts have the experience and financial stability that the nonprofits lack, he said.
"We also bring a level of transparency and democratic accountability that landowners find really important," Browning said.
To get lawsuit protection, the 14 environmental groups would have to follow five conditions, such as having the project designed by a licensed engineer or licensed geologist.
The groups already must follow the five conditions to get state funding. The bill would not add any new conditions to get lawsuit protection.
Hawkins said the bill was "truly surprising." Fish projects that go bad could actually damage salmon, he said.
"If they are not constructed properly, and they harm the runs, where is the tribe's recourse? If they harm landowners' adjoining lands, where is the recourse?" he asked.
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