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Labor activists file lawsuit over Point Ruston Project

A group of nine plaintiffs, most with ties to the activist group Jobs with Justice, filed a lawsuit this week against the City of Tacoma and Point Ruston LLC, claiming errors in the environmental review and permit process for the planned $1 billion development of the former Asarco smelter site.

The plaintiffs want the court to overturn the first building permit for the project – recently issued by Tacoma – and require developer Mike Cohen and the city to “adequately address” issues listed in the appeal before granting Cohen permission to use the land as he plans.

In their petition for land use review, filed in Pierce County Superior Court, the plaintiffs refer to “toxic dust clouds wafting over private homes and commercial spaces, frequent and substantial spills of Asarco soils on public roadways, lack of appropriate worker safety equipment and water-trucks, potentially contaminating potable water supplies, and fallen silt fences” since Cohen began cleaning up the site in summer 2006.

Cohen said the work is being closely monitored by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which he said has had no problems with it. He believes the lawsuit is retaliation for his refusal to sign a contract with Jobs with Justice. Washington State Jobs with Justice was founded in 1993 and works to improve the standard of living for working people, according to its Web site.

Cohen said the group wanted him to sign a 99-year “community benefits agreement” promising to make 15 percent of the housing he builds at Point Ruston affordable to individuals making 50 percent of the average Tacoma income, and to make commitments related to livable wages both for the construction workers at the site and retail workers who eventually work in the planned shops.

Cohen said he isn’t opposed to those ideas, but he wouldn’t sign the group’s contract. He said it’s not fair to ask him to solve larger societal problems.

“We had in-depth meetings with these folks,” Cohen said. “They gave us written demands. The claims in the lawsuit have nothing to do with those demands, so it looks like, ‘Meet these demands or we’ll make your life miserable.’”

The lawsuit alleges four errors related either to a building permit issued for the first condominium building at Point Ruston, or the environmental impact statement prepared for the development.

Tacoma City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli and City Manager Eric Anderson declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Jacob Carton, a staff organizer in the Tacoma office of Washington State Jobs with Justice, acknowledged that the lawsuit is part of a larger campaign involving Cohen’s project. Carton referred a reporter to two other plaintiffs – Nora Leider and Wendy Hall – for details about the campaign.

But he indicated they might not speak at length with a reporter, if at all, because of concerns about The News Tribune’s coverage of the Point Ruston project and real estate development in general. “The coverage has very little to do with investigative journalism, especially when it comes to Mike Cohen,” Carton said. “There’s something going on here. It’s more like promotional advertising than investigative journalism.”

Messages left for Leider and Hall weren’t immediately returned.

Nathe Lawver, chairman of the Pierce County Democratic Party, said he signed on to the lawsuit because he lives near the development and is concerned about the health of his children and others who live nearby.

“I’m just like anyone else,” Lawver said. “I want it to be done right, environmentally and socially.”

This article originally appeared in the Tacoma News Tribune

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