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Oso Mudslide: Lawsuit Blames State, Logging Company for Deadly Disaster

A lawsuit filed Wednesday blames state and local officials and a logging firm for the mudslide, which killed 43 people in March 2014.

Relatives of a half dozen people killed in the massive Oso, Washington mudslide filed suit against the state, Snohomish County and a logging company Wednesday, saying they helped turn a historically unstable hillside into a “wall of death.”

The March 2014 slide, which covered a square mile of the Stillaguamish River valley, killed 43 people, destroyed 49 buildings and closed a state highway for six months. The slide was the worst in U.S. history not caused by an earthquake, volcano or dam failure. President Obama declared Oso a federal disaster area.

The suit, filed in Seattle, asks for unspecified damages from the state, the county and Grandy Lake Forest Associates LLC. Attorney Karen Willie argued that clearcutting performed by the timber company in 2004 was the main cause of a 2006 slide on the same hillside, and that the 2006 slide destabilized the hill and made last spring’s slide more likely.

“This really is a social justice case. It’s not just about the money,“ Willie said. “No families should suffer because government is not doing its job.”

Calls to Snohomish County were not immediately returned.

Between 1937 and 2006 there were nine significant landslides in the exact same spot, known as “river mile 20” on the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River. The suit alleges that after the 2006 landslide moved the river 800 feet, federal, state and county officials moved the river back to its previous location, setting the stage for disaster.

The complaint also cited several scientific reports that warned of the potential for “catastrophic” hillside failure, including a 1999 draft report from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a 2010 report commissioned by a local tribe.

At least one other similar Oso lawsuit has been filed and Willie said she is urging the judge to consolidate them.

The state plans to fight both suits. “The Attorney General’s office is preparing to vigorously defend the two lawsuits we have been served with,” said Assistant Attorney General Mark Jobson.

Ken Osborn, who works with the consulting firm that manages Grandy Lake Forest, said Thursday he hadn’t reviewed the complaint and could not comment on it, but that people should not forget the victims of the mudslide. “Our hearts go out them,” he said. Osborn said the company is conscientious and "does things by the book," and noted that experts have described the slide as “a naturally caused catastrophic event.”

A recent report by the U.S. Geological Survey found that the four-year period that concluded on March 31, 2014 was the wettest four-year period on record in the Oso area. The slide occurred March 22, 2014.

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