Frustrated with permitting process, mine opponents turn to OlympiaBy ejourn | February 6th, 2009 | Category: Eye on Olympia, Get Involved |
By Scott Nordquist
The beach marches, kayak protests, and human barricades have disappeared from Maury Island. The same people who protested throughout the last month can now be found near the State Capitol trying to reform what they view as a faulty permitting process.
In a battle lasting over a decade, Glacier Northwest leaped a crucial hurdle to expand operation at its sand and gravel mine on Maury Island. The company quickly resumed work when the Department of Natural Resources granted the corporation its long awaited permit to construct a new pier and vastly increase production.
Concerned for the mine’s environmental impact, citizens repeatedly rallied to halt progress. Following weeks of emotionally charged protests state rules protecting spawning herring recently postponed further work until August.
However, opponents to the mine are not content to idly wait until construction continues. Stepping back to analyze how Glacier got the political green light, the opposition has identified what they believe to be problems with the procedure to obtain a permit. In what has already been a highly public confrontation, two new bills are now proposed in the State Legislature to amend the system that awarded the corporation its lease.
One bill, House Bill 1289 concerns campaign contributions to candidates for public lands commissioner. It would essentially prohibit groups tied to the lands commission from financially backing candidates.
Long criticized for his relationship with the timber and mining industries he is supposed to regulate, State Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland closed his term with a controversial decision. During his last weeks in office, he gave the final stamp of approval necessary for Glacier to expand its mine by granting a lease to build a dock on state-own aquatic land. Local citizens complained Sutherland’s judgment was compromised by the fact that Glacier had donated $50,000 to a political committee working to get him re-elected.
Bill Moyer calls the sequence of events “symptomatic and indicative of a broken process.” As Executive Director of the Backbone Campaign he helped mobilize citizens in the protests against the mine’s expansion.
Sutherland actions are “indicative of a pro-business commissioner,” argues Vashon resident, and University of Washington associate professor in Marine Affairs Patrick Christie.
On the other hand, as permit coordinator for Glacier Northwest, Pete Stoltz points out that Sutherland was not alone in his decision. Multiple state regulatory agencies had already granted permission to expand the mine. Thousands of man hours were spent reviewing scientific studies and weighing public comments. There were “a number of opportunities for public process,” asserts Stoltz. After lengthy reviews each agency agreed that the lease should be issued and “the project should move forward.”
While the first bill aims to prevent future conflicts of interest, House Bill 1708 has the potential to stop the mining. Intended to protect the Island’s drinking water, mining would be halted if the supply lowered to a predetermined benchmark.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the aquifer supplies seventy-one percent of drinking water to residents and any contamination would create a significant hazard to public health. Rainwater reaches the underground aquifer after being absorbed at the surface and filtered through the soil. Glacier’s proposed mining would reduce the soil buffer to fifteen feet in some places.
As a Maury resident and prime sponsor of the bill, State Representative Sharon Nelson fears that soil loss wouldn’t provide an adequate filter and could have disastrous consequences during storms. She insists that the current geography acts as a “timing mechanism” to appropriately regulate water levels.
Acknowledging that it is a critical aquifer, Glacier counters that a fifteen foot barrier is ample and actually exceeds many of the area’s natural valleys. Furthermore, Stoltz questions the rationale behind setting the benchmark at five percent saying that the level naturally varies to that extent.
No end in sight
In a classic clash between business and environmental interests, many have cited the conflict as a poster child for Puget Sound.
Stoltz affirms that Glacier is dedicated to the health of the Sound and has gone through the ten year permit process “meticulously and methodically.”
Logan Price, part of the kayak protests, believes that the mine expansion “sets a horrible precedent” and fears that Maury Island will become an example of what should never happen again in Puget Sound.
Regardless of the outcome of the bills, if construction resumes in August, both sides confirm they plan to pick up right where they left off.