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Supreme Court’s decision puts Legislature on center stage.

Save for a small scuba-diving boat just off-shore, the stretch of beach where Glacier Northwest wants to build its 400-foot dock and begin offloading millions of tons of sand and gravel was quiet last Sunday.

The sand shimmered in the afternoon sun. A juvenile eagle perched in a tree above the aging dock the company used some 30 years ago to offload gravel. A single grebe dove in the water.

The quiet, however, belied what’s happening on the eastern flank of Maury Island, where a storm of controversy, legal disputes and political wrangling has been unfolding for nearly a decade. In 1998, Glacier announced plans to expand its sand and gravel mining operations at the 235-acre site it owns on Maury, announcing it could extract as many as 7.5 million tons a year — transforming this quiet stretch of beach into what critics say would be the largest gravel-mining operation in the country.

Today, the proposed mine expansion is Vashon’s highest-profile environmental issue, a controversy that has captured the attention of most of the region’s leading environmental groups, garnered headlines and become the bumper-sticker issue of the Island.

Now, with this week’s start of the legislative session in Olympia, it will likely be front and center there, as well.

Last week, in a blow to Glacier’s foes, the state Supreme Court declined to hear their legal challenge to one of Glacier’s key permits, clearing yet another hurdle from Glacier’s path.

Last year, Glacier’s opponents sought a legislative end to the mine expansion, an effort that passed in the Senate but never made it to the floor of the House. This year, with the door to the Supreme Court closed, Glacier’s opponents will resume their fight in Olympia, more tenaciously than ever, they say.

“Nobody’s happy that the Supreme Court turned us down,” said Naki Stevens, director of programs for People For Puget Sound. “And yes, Glacier’s still a big threat. I’m just exuding hope and optimism that nobody in their right mind would want to destroy one of the most, if not the most, important aquatic reserves in Puget Sound when we’re trying to recover the Sound to health by 2020.”

Kathy Fletcher, who heads People For Puget Sound, said House Speaker Frank Chopp told the environmental caucus last week that “he’s very supportive of saving Maury Island.” His statement, she said, has given her hope that conservation groups might prevail in Olympia.

“I think there’s a chance,” she said.

But in the high-stakes game this battle has become, Glacier sees the Supreme Court’s decision differently, calling it another victory in a string of successes for the corporation and further evidence that the project is on track and will eventually get under way.

“We’ve successfully made several steps through the process, and we’ll complete the rest of them,” said Pete Stoltz, permit coordinator for the project. “We wouldn’t have spent all this effort if we didn’t think we could get this project permitted and that it’s a good project.”

As for the Supreme Court’s decision to not hear the appeal of its county-issued shoreline permit, Stoltz added, “It’s consistent with all the decisions that have already been made about this project.”

For some 30 years, Glacier, formerly Lonestar, was a quiet presence on the Island, extracting around 10,000 tons of gravel a year from its site on Maury.

For about 10 years, between 1968 to 1978, it used the now-aging dock and conveyor belt that stretches about 90 feet off shore to load sand and gravel onto barges. For the last several years, it’s loaded sand and gravel onto trucks, using the extracted materials primarily to service on-Island customers.

Ten years ago, however, sometime after Glacier was purchased by Taiheiyo Cement Corp., a Japanese conglomerate, Glacier officials announced plans to expand the mine dramatically.

And thus began one of the region’s most heated environmental battles.

Initially, Glacier officials said they wanted to build a barge-loading facility that would enable it to mine 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They said they wanted to dig to within 15 feet of the Island’s sole-source aquifer. They predicted they’d withdraw 7.5 million tons before closing the pit in 35 to 50 years.

The permitting process to date, though far from complete, has limited some of Glacier’s reach, and, should the mine move forward, the company is now limited to a schedule that would allow mining from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. five days a week rather than around the clock.

According to Glacer, that means it will extract 1.5 million to 2 million tons of sand and gravel over the next few decades, not the 7.5 million it initially predicted.

Still, the company says, it expects to mine 192 of its 235 acres — an expanse that includes one of the largest madrone forests on the Island. And it wants to build what it considers a state-of-the-art steel tube and barging platform to get the sand and gravel off the Island efficiently and expeditiously — the only way to make the mine affordable on ferry-dependent Maury Island.

Stoltz said the effort to extract more sand and gravel from the Maury site makes enormous sense.

“Nobody has been able to identify another place that has the attributes of Maury Island,” he said. “There is no other deposit that has the proximity to the water and that has the quality of the Maury deposit that is an existing mine site.”

According to Stoltz, 98 percent of the sand and gravel mined from Maury would be used for regional projects, including building new roads that some say the region needs.

“We talk about sustainability — about buying local food and other local products. Why not sand and gravel? Our regional community needs the resource and needs it locally.”

Amy Carey, the new head of Preserve Our Islands, sees it differently.

Carey on Sunday walked along the stretch of beach beneath the forested area Glacier hopes to soon begin mining. A birder and conservationist, she wore a pair of binoculars around her neck and paused at one point to watch a red-tailed hawk soar over the madrone-studded uplands Glacier owns.

Should Glacier prove successful, Carey said, this stretch of beach and forested hillside — now a haven for wildlife — will be devastated. The madrones will be bulldozed; and barges, day after day, will sidle up to the proposed dock where they’ll get loaded with 10,000 tons of gravel and carted off to sites across the Sound.

The presence of the conveyor and barge-loading facility alone will have a big impact, Carey said; it will stretch out into the water some 400 feet, creating a shadow the size of a football field over light-dependent eelgrass beds. Those beds, she noted, form the basis of the Sound’s ecosystem, providing nurseries for herring and smelt, which in turn feed salmon and ultimately killer whales.

Puget Sound’s southern resident orca whales, recently listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, have been spotted in the area all winter, she said. Juvenile chinook salmon linger in the eelgrass beds.

Due to mounting concern over the health of Puget Sound, Gov. Christine Gregoire and the state Legislature last year created the new Puget Sound Partnership and appropriated $238 million towards the Sound’s restoration and protection.

“This is not a NIMBY issue,” Carey said, referring to the not-in-my-backyard sentiment that Glacier sometimes calls it. “This is a poster child for saving Puget Sound.”

The battle against Glacier has been waged on many fronts, but environmentalists had pinned considerable hope on the legal challenge that ended last week in the state Supreme Court.

The case stemmed from 2004, when King County denied Glacier its shoreline permit, needed before it could construct the dock. Glacier challenged the decision and, in 2006, won at the appellate court level. The county and Preserve Our Islands appealed to the state Supreme Court, hoping that a decision handed down last year on another shoreline case would provide the precedent the high court needed to overturn the appellate court decision.

County Councilman Dow Constantine, in a news release issued last week, called the Supreme Court’s decision to not hear the case “a major setback for Puget Sound.”

“It’s ironic that, even as we are asking state taxpayers to spend billions to clean up Puget Sound, this decision gives a green light to a project that will destroy a crucial piece of our remaining nearshore environment,” Constantine said.

And Glacier took the decision as another sign that it’s on the right track.

“The high court’s decision to let stand the unanimous Appeals Court decision regarding Maury Island is the latest in an almost 10-year string of regulatory and judicial decisions that have found in favor of our proposal,” Mark Leatham, Glacier Northwest general manager, said in a statement.

But Carey said Glacier still has many hurdles to overcome. The company has yet to secure approval from the Army Corps of Engineers to build its dock; the hydraulic permit it received from the state is being challenged; and it needs grading permits from the county. Glacier may also need to conduct an environmental impact statement as a result of the Army Corps’ review.

And should Glacier secure all of its permits, it will still need to obtain a lease from the state public lands commissioner, who oversees the Department of Natural Resources. That’s because the dock Glacier wants to build would extend out over state aquatic lands that have been set aside as one of the state’s four aquatic reserves.

“It will essentially be up to the public lands commissioner,” said Carey.

Meanwhile, both sides are gearing up for an intense legislative battle. Glacier, which recently completed a sophisticated Web site about the Maury mine site, will attempt to “inform legislators about exactly what we plan to do,” Stoltz said. This year, as in years past, it will be represented by Steve Gano, one of Olympia’s highest-paid lobbyists.

Rep. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, who founded and was the first head of Preserve Our Islands, has already filed three bills that could stymie Glacier’s efforts; and the bill that didn’t make it to the House floor last year — legislation that would have explicitly banned industrial barging in an aquatic reserve — is still alive this year, Carey said.

“We’re going to continue to focus on whatever arena we can to protect the nearshore from Glacier’s industrial operation,” she said. “This fight’s far from over.”

Glacier’s permits

• King County shoreline permit denied by county in March 2004. Denial reversed by Shoreline Hearings Board in November 2004 and upheld by the Washington State Court of Appeals in June 2006. Last week, state Supreme Court decided not to hear the case.

• King County grading and mining permit: Not issued.

• Army Corps of Engineers permit to construct dock: Not issued.

• Department of Ecology water certification permits: Issued.

• Department of Fish and Wildlife hydraulic permit: Issued; under appeal by environmental groups. Hearing is scheduled in April.

• Department of Natural Resources aquatic lands lease: Not issued.

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