At 10:37 a.m. on March 22, an entire community was wiped out in a few minutes, buried under as much as 70 feet of mud and debris. As of April 2, 28 people are confirmed dead with another 20 reported missing.
The likelihood that cutting down all the trees in a certain area above Snohomish County slope would lead to one of the deadliest landslide disasters in U.S. history may be impossible to calculate. What’s clear, however, is that the owners of Grandy Lake Forest company considered the profit worth the risk. Governmåent officials, for their part, sought a “balance” between the logging bosses’ thirst for profit and the possibility of fatal disaster.
Not only did Grandy Lake Forest cut beyond the boundaries set by the Department of Natural Resources. But DNR officials approved cutting beyond limits drawn by scientists — limits that were delineated to prevent water from saturating the mountainside and causing mudslides.
A Department of Natural Resources factsheet posted to the agency’s website after the disaster emphasized that a 1997 analysis of the area by the Department of Ecology “meets or exceeds all current rule requirements for harvest restrictions.”
What the factsheet didn’t say, and the Seattle Times uncovered, is that in 2004 the DNR approved a plan to remove all trees in a seven-and-a-half acre area, five of which were within the perimeter slated for protection under the 1997 study. And then Grandy Lake Forest — which had initially sought permission to cut down 15 acres — harvested about an acre beyond that approved by the DNR.
As for the 1997 analysis itself, one of the engineers quoted in a March 30 report by the Times gives a picture of the pressures under which it was put together:
Paul Kennard, a geologist who was working with the Tulalip Tribes during the 1997 watershed analysis, said he remembers a Grandy Lake representative arguing “very eloquently and hard” to protect the company’s timber interests.
“Everything had to be argued to the nth degree if it involved leaving a stick of timber,” Kennard said. … The tribes saw the system as tilted heavily in favor of timber companies.
“It’s David and Goliath, but you don’t have the slingshot,” Kennard said.
A 1999 report filed with the Army Corps of Engineers warned of “the potential for a large catastrophic failure.” But as geologist and other scientists issued such warnings, government officials issued building permits. And those living in harm’s way were kept in the dark.
Snohomish County officials “knew that this mountain was unstable and they let people build there,” Robin Youngblood, one of the few known survivors, told Associated Press. “This shouldn’t have happened.”
“Eighty percent of the people who live in the area are struggling — working people and poor people,” Daree Damm, a food service worker and artist who lives in Arlington, about 20 miles southwest of the disaster, told the Militant.
Evidence of instability in the area includes decades of cautionary reports and a long record of smaller landslides: in 1949, 1951, 1967, 1988 and 2006.
Yet “it was considered very safe,” was the assertion of John Pennington, director of Snohomish County Emergency Management, in a press conference two days after the catastrophe. “This was a completely unforeseen slide. This came out of nowhere.”
Clay Dennison contributed to this article from Arlington, Wash.
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