It's official: Instead of spewing 10,000-ton loads of gravel from a long steel pier into waiting barges, the gravel mine site on the east coast of Maury Island will become a 235-acre King County Park. The papers have been signed.
Representatives of King County and CalPortland, which owned the site, closed the deal on Thursday (Dec. 30). (CalPortland, which has absorbed the gravel mine's longtime owner, Glacier Northwest, is — like Glacier — owned by Tokyo-based Taiheiyo Cement.) The county got the keys to the property gate.
The all-but-final agreement, brokered by the Cascade Land Conservancy, was announced in November. The Cascade Land Conservancy, Preserve Our Islands, the citizens group that has been fighting the gravel mine proposal since 1999, and the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust are still rustling up a couple million dollars worth of private donations, but that didn't hold up the signing.
“It's surreal,” Amy Carey, president of Preserve Our Islands, told the Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber. “It is surreal,” agrees state Sen. Sharon Nelson, the founder and first president of POI, who had been fighting the mine since the presidency of Bill Clinton.
Nelson, who lives near the site, got involved 13 years ago when she and her husband attended a meeting of the Vashon Community Council and learned that Maury Island might provide the fill for Sea Tac's third runway, then still a gleam in the Port of Seattle's eye. The Nelsons thought the community council should form a committee to study the potential threat. If you want a committee, the council president told them, you form it. So Nelson became the chair of an ad hoc community council committee to study what was then called the Lone Star site.
A couple of years later, when it became clear that the effort to halt the gravel mine would take serious money, she and some other mine opponents formed Preserve Our Islands. From there, she joined the staff of then-King County Councilmember Dow Constantine, who represented Vashon and Maury islands (as he had before as a state legislator), eventually becoming his chief of staff. She became a state representative in 2007 and then, this fall, won election to the senate, where she will be vice-chair of the Environment, Water & Energy Committee.
When Nelson got interested in the gravel mine, it seemed like a classic NIMBY issue. Massive amounts of gravel had been mined on the site from 1968 to 1978, but the pier and conveyor had fallen into disrepair, and industrial activity was a memory that most people who lived in the area didn't share. Initial plans called for mining up to 7.5 million tons of gravel a year, and loading huge barges 24/7. Would you want a monster gravel mine operating 24/7 anywhere near your home?
But unlike many NIMBY issues, this one truly had broader significance. Opponents figured from the start that it did, and, Nelson recalls, they set out right away to prove it. A $6,000 contribution from the community council enabled them to start quick studies of arsenic on the site and eelgrass in the shallow water.
To make a long story short, they found both. The arsenic shouldn't have surprised anyone — although, Nelson says, people had forgotten about the smoke plume from the old Tacoma smelter that had shut down more than 10 years before. The site was contaminated by fallout from the plume, which had showered the shoreline with arsenic for most of the 20th century.
The arsenic lies in the top layers of soil. The mining would displace that contaminated top layer and expose underlying layers of porous gravel, potentially giving the arsenic a clear path down to the aquifer. The company ultimately said it would collect the soil and isolate it — forever — in a sealed berm. The berm would be up to 30 feet high and 2,100 feet long. Opponents weren't reassured.
Eelgrass grows both north and south of the dock site. It provides vital habitat for juvenile salmon, plus the herring and sand lance on which salmon feed, and any nmber of invertebrates and crustacea. The extent of eelgrass beds is one of 20 “dashboard indicators” that the Puget Sound Partnership has adopted to gauge the health of the Sound.
Opponents argued that a long dock would shade the eelgrass and that the prop wash from tugboats would physically disturb it. To meet those objections, the company ultimately planned to build a dock of metal slats through which light could reach the eelgrass, and to extend the dock nearly 100 feet farther than originally planned, to keep the propellers farther away. Again, opponents didn't buy it.
Nelson says the Maury gravel mine didn't stay a local issue very long; it acquired statewide significance in 1999, when Puget Sound chinook were listed as a threatened species. The issue also attracted wider attention as other organizations got involved. People for Puget Sound and the Washington Environmental Council became allies more than a decade ago, and have stuck it out. They have been co-plaintiffs in the lawsuits. At the end of 2008, when Glacier began replacing the old loading pier, and Gore-Tex-clad protesters gathered along the beach in kayaks and on foot, People for Puget Sound executive director Kathy Fletcher was among them. “Kathy Fletcher is a saint,” Nelson says.
In 2002, Glacier Northwest applied to King County for a shoreline substantial development permit and a shoreline conditional use permit. Two years later, the county turned Glacier down. Glacier appealed to the state Shorelines Hearings Board. The board told the county to grant the permits. Yes, King County's shoreline master plan designated the Maury shoreline a “Conservancy Area,” but that didn't mean what it seemed. Indeed, the board observed, ”the Conservancy Environment is the only designation within King County’s master program in which mining is not prohibited.”
True, the shoreline had to be protected, but “[o]peration of the conveyor and barge loading dock is consistent with the King County [shoreline master plan] mining policies.” The board also looked back at the shoreline's historic use, observing that “[u]nder the hours of operation condition [12 hours a day, Monday through Friday], the existing character of the shoreline, shoreline uses, and level of barge loading activity are similar to the character of the shoreline when the conveyor and barge loading dock [were] used in the 1960’s and 1970s.”
Four years earlier, it had looked, briefly, as if the whole issue might become moot. Shortly before she left office, outgoing Commissioner of Public Lands Jennifer Belcher designated that stretch of Maury Island shoreline a state aquatic reserve. That turned out to settle nothing.
After Belcher retired, Republican Doug Sutherland defeated former Gov. Mike Lowry for her old job. What Belcher had done, Sutherland could undo. And he did. Sutherland revoked the orders that had established aquatic reserves on the Maury Island shore and elsewhere in Puget Sound. In 2004, after a lengthy agency review, he established the reserve again — but only after a final EIS made it clear that the proposed gravel-loading operation within it would be OK.
The 2007 legislature considered bills that would have prohibited the state authorization of industrial uses and material transport from mining or industrial activities within the Maury Island aquatic reserve. At just about the same time, Gov. Chris Gregoire launched the current effort to restore Puget Sound, and the legislature created the Puget Sound Partnership. But the bill to prohibit gravel mining in the reserve died without a House vote.
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