Glacier foes find gold on Maury site

For months, opponents of Glacier Northwest’s massive sand and gravel mine on Maury Island have insisted the state owns the mineral rights to that sand and gravel and can’t hand them over to a corporation without receiving compensation.

The state has disagreed, arguing that sand and gravel are not minerals.

Now, opponents have upped the ante considerably in the fight over whether Glacier owes money to the state for its mining operation on Maury: They’ve found gold at Glacier’s site.

Two samples from Glacier’s Maury site examined by an independent Oregon laboratory contained small quantities of both gold and silver, Amy Carey, the head of Preserve our Islands (POI), said. Since the state retained the mineral rights when it sold that land decades ago, Glacier can’t extract gold — even inadvertently — without compensating the state, she said.

“There’s no question that gold is a mineral. It’s against the law to take it. And whoever takes it — well, it’s actually classified as theft,” Carey said.

Carey met with Doug Sutherland, head of the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the agency that oversees state-owned mineral rights, and several of his top aides last week to inform them of POI’s findings.

As a result of that meeting, DNR officials said, the state has decided to undertake its own independent analysis.

“It has just been given to one of our geologists to develop a contract to take the appropriate number of samples at the appropriate depths so that we can take a thorough look and detect if there’s a quantity that’s commercially viable,” said Jane Chavey, a spokeswoman for DNR. “At the end of the day, someone would have to break even or make a profit. Then we’d take a good look at the situation.”

“We’re going to take this one step at a time,” she added.

Lab reports revealed trace amounts of what’s called flour gold in Glacier’s sand and gravel, the kind of gold that is mined in the West, where nuggets are rarely found anymore. And according to Carey, those trace amounts could add up: If the sample size extends across Glacier’s site, the company has already lifted some 50,000 ounces of gold over the course of its mining operations there, she said. The 30-year medium price for an ounce of gold is $400 — suggesting Glacier may have already removed $20 million worth of the precious metal.

Pete Stoltz, permit coordinator for Glacier, said he doesn’t know where on Glacier’s site the samples came from or what they say about the property.

“I have no way to respond to this in a responsible manner,” he said.

Carey’s discovery comes at a critical time in the decade-long fight over Glacier’s effort to expand its mining operations at the site. Glacier recently cleared one of its last permitting hurdles when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved Glacier’s request to build a barge-loading pier that would extend 305 feet into Puget Sound and end in a 510-foot “T.” POI is expected to appeal that decision in federal court.

Now, the company says, it needs one last document before it can begin building the controversial pier: a lease from the state.

While Glacier owns its 235-acre site on Maury, the waters around it are owned by the state and are within the state-designated Maury Island Aquatic Reserve. Before it can build a dock extending over state-owned tide lands, the company needs a multi-year lease from the state. DNR officials are currently analyzing Glacier’s mining and dock-construction plans to determine if they comply with the agency’s management plan for the aquatic reserve.

POI’s findings are not the first by the small advocacy group. Earlier this year, the organization unearthed deeds for the Maury property from 1910 and 1923 that say the state holds the rights to “all oils, gases, coal, ores, minerals, and fossils of every name, kind, or description, and which may be in or upon said lands above described.”

Both the state and Glacier disputed the significance of POI’s findings. According to DNR officials, gravel does not fall under the category of mineral; a section of state law specifically allows for the sale of “timber, stone, fallen timber, hay or gravel or other valuable materials.”

The dispute became an issue in the last Legislative session, ending in a decision that a state panel — the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee — will take a look at the issue and determine if the state has wrongfully given away its mineral rights on the Maury site.

Carey said the fact that POI continues to put forward significant issues that government agencies have failed to discover underscores one of the organization’s leading complaints about the role various watchdog agencies have played over the course of the 10-year saga – that they’re not doing their job.

The discovery of gold at the Maury site, she said, “is just one more indication of the lack of oversight that has been provided by all the agencies and in this case DNR. How is that we can figure this out and the agencies don’t?”

Carey called it “gold 101” to find the precious metal – currently trading at $850 an ounce – mixed in with sand and gravel deposits. What’s more, she noted, the money that comes from the state’s mineral reservations goes to support school construction and other public needs.

“Their responsibility is to make sure the state interests are protected,” she said. “It’s troubling that we had to point this out.”

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