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Preserve Our Islands heads to court to challenge Glacier’s state-issued lease

Former Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland looked to the region’s economic needs and its appetite for sand and gravel to justify his decision to issue a lease to Glacier Northwest, according to a recently filed lawsuit against the state Department of Natural Resources.

Sutherland was required by law to look to the Maury Island Aquatic Reserve’s management plan before awarding the corporation a 30-year lease to the publicly owned waters, the lawsuit filed by Maury Island-based Preserve Our Islands (POI) contends. Instead, he invoked the state Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) “general authority to foster water-dependent commerce,” the suit says.

According to the suit, Sutherland sent an e-mail to a lawmaker explaining his decision, citing the “short supply” of sand and gravel in the region and the material’s importance “to any serious economic development.”

“Of course, economic development, or cheap plentiful sand, is not an identified legitimate basis for approving a lease within a designated aquatic reserve,” the suit says, adding, “The basis of the decision was economic expediency, not environmental protection.”

The suit, filed in King County Superior Court on June 8, is the latest chapter in the decade-long saga over a proposed mine expansion on the eastern rim of Maury Island.

Glacier Northwest, a subsidiary of a Japanese-based conglomerate, has argued for years for the need to dramatically expand gravel mining at its 235-acre site. It overcame a significant hurdle last winter when Sutherland issued the lease; the next day, it began to build a 305-foot barge-loading pier, a structure that’s critical, the corporation has said, to its plans to haul millions of tons gravel off the site each year.

Glacier stopped construction work in January, after the window for in-water construction closed to protect certain fish species. The company is expected to resume its work this fall.

But POI president Amy Carey said the corporation still has several hurdles to overcome, including POI’s latest foray into the courtroom. The suit, an appeal of the state’s decision to issue the lease, puts forward a solid argument that Sutherland and his staff erred when DNR made the lease decision, she said.

“They failed by such a wide, wide margin,” Carey said. “There’s not a lot of gray area here.”

Sutherland was defeated last fall by Democratic challenger Peter Goldmark, who, since taking office, has publicly questioned the lease and has ordered his staff to review it. Goldmark, in particular, has questioned the amount Sutherland decided to charge the corporation — $1,500 a year — noting in a radio interview earlier this year that he’d get more money if he rented out a room in his home.

Goldmark is expected to issue a decision soon on whether the lease can be revoked.

“We certainly want to wrap it up this summer,” said Aaron Toso, Goldmark’s spokesman.

The 51-page suit is hard-hitting in its language, contending that DNR made “serious mistakes” in its analysis leading up to its lease decision and that the issuance “violates numerous specifice requirements” laid out in a management plan that governs the reserve.

The project, for instance, will create noise and other impacts that will harm fish species the reserve is meant to protect; will bring in barges that will create “prop wash” — currents caused by propellers — that will harm the habitat; and will cause contaminated discharges to spill into Puget Sound, the suit alleges.

What’s more, memos show that staff did not believe the pier complied with the management plan’s objectives. Sutherland, the suit says, “ignored staff’s conclusion.”

Preserve Our Islands v. Washington Department of Natural Resources; Northwest Aggregate Company (PDF)

POI DNR Opening_Brief[1]

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