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Army Corps sides with Glacier

In a victory for Glacier Northwest, a federal agency has determined that the corporation’s plans to build a controversial 400-foot pier for its massive gravel-barging operation off the shores of Maury Island will not harm the environment.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in a 62-page draft decision issued earlier this month, said that building and operating the pier will have short-term impacts on marine life, water quality and recreational activity. But the agency said those impacts could be minimized by a number of measures, including limiting the pier’s hours of operation, monitoring the health of the eelgrass beds and use of an enclosed conveyor belt that would prevent gravel from spilling into Puget Sound.

The agency’s comments were a part of its draft Environmental Assessment, which is available for public comment until March 10. If the agency sticks with its finding of “no significant impact” in its final assessment, it will issue the corporation the permit it needs to build its pier — a linchpin to Glacier’s plans to dramatically increase sand and gravel extraction from the 235-acre site it owns on Maury Island.

Amy Carey, president of Preserve Our Islands, which has been battling the expansion for more than a decade, said she was disappointed but not surprised by the Corps’ decision.

Almost from the get-go, she said, “The permitting process has been mismanaged.”

Even so, the conservation group is in the process of drafting a response to the Corps’ Environmental Assessment in an effort to influence the final assessment, she said. The group will argue that the agency’s biological evaluations that informed the assessment were flawed and that the document failed to take into account the impact the pier will have on uplands habitat.

“This comment period is a tool for the Corps. They could decide that they have to evaluate issues they’ve not yet considered,” she said.

State Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island), who founded Preserve Our Islands, said she too is troubled by the Corps’ decision. The assessment, she said, did not seem to take into account earlier findings, such as a state-mandated Environmental Impact Study that said the barging operation could harm the herring stock, critical to the Sound’s overall health.

But the battle’s far from over, she added.

“The federal courts are always stronger on environmental issues than state courts,” she said, alluding to a possible legal challenge to the Corps’ decision in the U.S. District Court. “I just call it the next round.”

Glacier officials, meanwhile, took the decision as another sign that the project will ultimately prevail.

The Corps’ assessment comes weeks after the state Supreme Court declined to hear Preserve Our Islands’ appeal of another key permit — this one from King County — that Glacier needs in order to move forward on its project. The corporation has also received the green light from the state Department of Ecology and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Now we’ve had seven agencies that have reviewed this project and have determined that it will have no significant environmental impacts,” said Pete Stoltz, permit coordinator for Glacier. “There is a process here.

“This is a draft EA,” he added. “But we think it’s a good document.”

The corporation, a subsidiary of Taiheiyo Cement Corp. of Japan, has argued that its mining and barging plans will provide sand and gravel for much-needed road and infrastructure projects in the region. It has also argued that barging is environmentally friendly, as it’s a more efficient means of transport than trucking the materials off-Island, and that barging is the only way to make the mine financially feasible.

Glacier’s land is within an area zoned for mining. The waters that surround the area, meanwhile, are a state-sanctioned aquatic reserve, one of only four in Washington.

The Corps’ assessment comes as a blow to some conservationists, who had hoped that the recent listing of the southern resident killer whales as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act would have convinced the Corps to withhold its approval. The iconic whales, said to be sensitive to underwater sound that affects their ability to communicate, have been spotted several times off the shores of Vashon this winter, including near the area where Glacier wants to build its new pier.

Annie Stateler, an orca conservationist who runs the Vashon Hydrophone Project, which records whales’ underwater vocalizations, said she thought the listing could have put the kibosh on the pier.

“It’s not as big of a stick as we thought it would be,” she said.

Conservationists are also frustrated that Glacier’s plans continue to move forward at the same time that Gov. Christine Gregoire and other regional leaders are calling for Puget Sound’s restoration by 2020. The state is slated to spend millions of dollars over the next several years to purchase and restore near-shore habitat, remove invasive marine species and undertake other activities in an effort to restore an inland sea that is said to be in jeopardy.

“Why are we considering a project like this? It seems completely contrary with the effort to restore the Sound,” Stateler said.

But Glacier opponents have also argued that a legislative solution to the controversy is possible, and on Monday, they secured a win in their battle against Glacier. A bill that would halt any mineral extraction from the area until it’s determined whether the state owns the mineral rights on a portion of Glacier’s site narrowly passed in the state Senate. It now moves to the House.

The bill was drafted after Preserve Our Islands (POI) found evidence in an old deed for the property that Glacier’s predecessor, when it purchased the land from the state, did not secure the mineral rights. The state Department of Natural Resources has disputed POI’s findings.

“Obviously, we’re pleased,” Carey said about the legislative win in the Senate. “The bill doesn’t kill the mine. It puts a pause button on while this issue of who owns the mineral rights is determined.”

Nelson said the bill, should it survive the legislative process, will force the state to reconsider how it moves forward with Glacier’s site.

“From my perspective, the barge-loading facility can’t go in until we reconcile who owns the minerals, because we can’t have Glacier shipping materials that the state owns,” she said.

Stoltz, with Glacier, said he was surprised the Legislature was even considering the question of who owns the mineral rights. According to documents Glacier has secured, the company clearly does.

“I’m confident that in the end the facts will prevail. That’s what happened with every other review of this project,” he said.

Corps’ decision

To read the Corps’ assessment, go to www.nws.usace.army.mil and look at the section marked “Links of Interest.” Send comments to olivia.h.romano@usace.army.mil or to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Regulatory Branch, P.O. Box 3755, Seattle, Wash., 98124-3755.

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