Glacier halts work after weeks of political skirmishes

Glacier Northwest is scheduled to halt work today on its 305-foot barge-loading pier after the state denied its request to continue the construction project beyond the closing of the so-called fish window designed to project spawning herring.

Greg Hueckel, the assistant director of the habitat program for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said Glacier officials asked if they could continue working beyond Jan. 15, when state-imposed restrictions to protect spawning herring go into effect. The corporation, he said, wanted to wrap up some aspects of the ambitious project that got delayed because of December’s inclement weather.

Hueckel said he denied the request because of the importance of the herring spawning grounds around Vashon, some of the best in the central Puget Sound region.

“I understand they have schedules, but we also have some issues,” he said, noting that such requests are not unusual. “It’s my job to weigh uncertainties, and when we’re uncertain ... I error on the side of protection.”

The request capped a week of an ongoing tug-of-war over the corporation’s efforts to make as much headway as possible on its controversial pier off of its 235-acre site on the eastern edge of Maury Island.

Last week, the corporation was forced to stop work for a few days after its biologists reported finding eggs from spawning sand lance, a small fish considered at the basis of the Puget Sound food chain. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave it permission to resume work on Jan. 7 after the federal agency modified Glacier’s permit, placing a condition that it could continue only if it used a certain kind of pile-driving.

“We coordinated with National Marine Fisheries and determined a permit modification was appropriate,” said Michelle Walker, chief of the Corps’ regulatory branch at its district office in Seattle. “We have completed the necessary steps to ensure the permit is in compliance with all the various rules and regulations we have to comply with.”

Meanwhile, activists opposed to Glacier’s project continued to work to get Gov. Christine Gregoire to step into the fray, while Glacier officials urged her to remain on the sidelines.

Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) said she talked to Gregoire’s chief of staff, Marty Brown, last week, who said he’s consulting with the attorney general’s office about a letter Nelson and more than a dozen other lawmakers signed urging Gregoire to use a little-known statute in the state ethics code to try to have the lease the state issued to Glacier rescinded.

The lease was issued to Glacier by outgoing Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland weeks before his term ended and after a political action committee formed to support his re-election bid received a $50,000 donation from Glacier.

“They were reviewing it,” Nelson said of the governor’s staff.

Glacier, however, sent the governor its own letter, a four-page memo urging Gregoire not to take “the unprecedented step of unilaterally rescinding a binding lease agreement between Glacier and the State of Washington.” Opponents have lost every step of the way in their decade-long battle to block the mine expansion project at both the administrative and judicial level, according to the letter, signed by Glacier’s lawyer, William Cronin.

Should Gregoire change the state’s position at this time, he added, “It would be easy for businesses in our state to lose faith in our regulatory system given what Glacier Northwest has gone through for the last 10 years.”

Glacier also issued a news release last week noting Preserve Our Islands, the Vashon-based group fighting the Glacier project, was unable to get a federal judge to issue a temporary restraining order (TRO) to immediately halt construction.

Pete Stoltz, permit coordinator for Glacier and the corporation’s main spokesman, said he was pleased by the judge’s decision.

“Obviously, we didn’t want a TRO placed on the project,” he said.

But Amy Carey, who heads Preserve Our Islands (POI), said the judge, in denying the request for a temporary restraining order, called instead for a hearing on the matter.

Because that hearing was scheduled for Jan. 9, only five days before Glacier had to stop work anyway, POI decided not to move forward with the request.

“It seemed like a complete disrespect for the judge’s time,” she said. “It had nothing to do with anything other than that.”

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