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Commencement Bay Coffee meets the grind of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency

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Commencement Bay Coffee may not survive through 2008. The celebrated community hub, as well as the livelihoods of its owner Keith Prichard and seven employees, are in jeopardy because of nearly $9,000 in fines levied by Seattle-based Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, which is in charge of enforcing federal clean-air standards. The PSCAA says Prichard has refused to comply with several orders to stop roasting coffee until he can install a $30,000 afterburner to incinerate coffee particles produced by his small roaster. Documents outlining Prichard’s violations characterize him as a scofflaw. Prichard says he simply can’t afford to comply on the PSCAA’s schedule, and that he is the victim of seemingly arbitrary enforcement measures and bad timing.

“At this point, I just want to be left alone,” says Prichard. “If they push this fine, I’ll close. That’s it. I would rather they just put me in jail.”

Prichard received a visit from a PSCAA representative in 2004 after one of his competitors suggested that the agency “stop by” Commencement Bay Coffee to look around. The day of the visit, Prichard was told to cease his roasting operations immediately until he could install a required piece of filtering equipment that would burn off all the coffee particles produced during the roasting process.

Prichard suddenly found himself in between a rock and a hard place.

“Coffee sales are my only real source of income,” he says. “My wife is disabled, and this is how I pay our bills. The café sort of pays for itself, but the only money I take home is from roasting coffee. They basically asked me to quit my job.”

Until he was visited by the PSCAA, Prichard thought he had complied with all the rules and regulations required to roast coffee in Pierce County. The company that supplied the roaster had told him that afterburners are rarely used unless neighbors start to complain about the smell of coffee in the air. When it opened, Commencement Bay didn’t really have any neighbors, except for a few nearby businesses. After the agency came calling, Prichard concedes that he continued to roast, despite the agency’s orders, in order to keep food on the table. He had spent his life savings to open Commencement Bay, and had no reserves.  After receiving multiple orders to cease roasting, Prichard asked for a year to come up with $30,000 he needed to install the equipment. The agency gave him 10 months to provide notice that he was on his way to installing the equipment, along with nearly $2,000 in permits and documentation. He was given a little more than three months to order the equipment, and one year to have it in place.

“There was just no way I could do it,” says Prichard.

In January 2007, Prichard stopped roasting coffee and contracted with a roaster in Puyallup to continue making his company’s signature brands.

“I effectively lost my job a year ago,” he says. “I thought that shutting down settled it.”

Lo and behold, an effectively jobless Prichard received a certified letter from the PSCAA six months later, announcing that he was being fined nearly $14,000 for past violations. Prichard appealed to the PSCAA, saying he had complied with the last notice, and couldn’t possibly afford to pay the fine. A reply announced that the fine had been reduced to just shy of $9,000. Prichard says he thinks giving up a $50,000-per-year component of his business is enough, and that he still can’t pay the fine.

“This is a fun business, and I opened it hoping that I could help clean up this neighborhood,” he says. “I don’t make a ton of money, but I could operate forever here. But if they throw this on me, I won’t make it. I can’t.”

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