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Port of Vancouver—Partnering with the Community

Overview

When the Port of Vancouver steps up to protect the community, they know that Schwabe will help the Port get it done.

Environmental cleanups are notoriously challenging. Often the contamination occurred long ago, and the responsible parties are broke or cannot be found. The Port of Vancouver faced this situation in the late 1990s, when the City discovered substantial soil and groundwater contamination under property the Port had purchased in the early 1980s. Investigation quickly revealed that the property had been used by a manufacturer in the 1960s. Unbeknownst to the Port, the manufacturer had discharged large amounts of tetrachloroethylene (TCE) into the soil and groundwater, resulting in substantial contamination.

The Port quickly stepped up to take on the cleanup. But this also meant the Port was looking at tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs for a problem caused by others. So while the Port focused on working with the Department of Ecology and the community to investigate and resolve the problem, they called Schwabe in to help unravel the history, liability and financial aspects of the cleanup.

Over the next 10 years, Schwabe actively sought cost recovery and contribution from the former owners and operators of the manufacturer for its historical discharges at the Port property. After lengthy litigation, including a bankruptcy reorganization filed by the manufacturer, Schwabe assisted the Port with a multi-faceted settlement with the former operators that included the Port taking ownership of the manufacturer’s current property (making them a tenant, keeping 100 jobs in the community and requiring a lease, as well as the property transfer agreement). Ultimately, Schwabe and the Port recovered tens of millions of dollars to pay for the remediation and helped the Port turn an adversarial relationship with a neighbor into a long lasting and productive relationship. 

Schwabe’s team also partnered with Port staff and consultants to negotiate with the Department of Ecology on the scope of the investigation and reimbursement of cleanup costs, and with the Department of Health on issues of public safety, including vapor intrusion and personal injury. Throughout this long process Schwabe gave regular updates to the Port and its Commissioners and provided counseling to Port and its staff on communications to ensure effective and appropriate communications. 

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“Thinking back…some (projects) were simple and some really complicated, but with your help and Port leadership we accomplished great things and I am very proud to have been part of that work for those years.  I don’t recall that our two groups ever looked at our relationship as just clients or legal counsel and that made it much easier to work together and build a great partnership.  The trust and confidence was always there.” 

- Nancy Baker, Port Commissioner, 2003 to 2015