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State questions Glacier's lease, raises 'grave concerns'

Glacier barged a construction crane to its site off of Maury Island to begin construction last December. It hopes to resume building its controversial pier Aug. 15.   - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Glacier barged a construction crane to its site off of Maury Island to begin construction last December. It hopes to resume building its controversial pier Aug. 15.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark said he has “grave concerns” about the environmental impact of Glacier Northwest’s barge-loading facility off of Maury Island and asked the corporation on Tuesday to “cease operations” until several questions can be answered.

The corporation’s 305-foot pier would extend over a state-owned aquatic reserve, governed by a management plan crafted by the state Department of Natural Resources in 2004. Late last year, Goldmark’s predecessor Doug Sutherland issued Glacier a 30-year lease to the aquatic reserve, giving the corporation one of the last green lights it needed to begin building the controversial pier.

But Goldmark, in a two-page letter to Glacier issued late Tuesday, said his staff has carefully reviewed the lease and determined the company “has not submitted sufficient information to demonstrate lease compliance.”

One of DNR’s highest priorities is protection of Puget Sound, Goldmark told Glacier in his letter, adding, “I have grave concerns about how your dock and gravel-loading operation may affect the health of Puget Sound and (the Maury Island Environmental Aquatic) Reserve.”

In a statement issued to the press, the newly elected commissioner said it’s not clear “how or if (Glacier) will implement and monitor actions to ensure compliance within the existing lease. I have asked the company to cease operations on the site until these questions are answered.”

Goldmark, when he took office in January, said he would review the lease, issued in the final days of Sutherland’s administration, and possibly even rescind it if he found it didn’t meet the demands of the aquatic reserve’s management plan. Even so, the news of his decision came as a surprise to Glacier officials, who first heard about the letter when contacted by a reporter.

“We’re pretty stunned by the developments. The agency hasn’t talked to us about any of these issues in the last several months,” said Pete Stoltz, permit coordinator for Glacier and the company’s main spokesman.

“We’re studying the letter, and we’re going to endeavor to respond in good faith and appropriately,” he added.

The project, Stoltz said, has already been reviewed by state and federal agencies. The company, he added, is slated to resume work on the pier Aug. 15, when a state-regulated construction window, currently closed to protect fish, re-opens.

“We hope to complete the pier during this work window,” he saidp.

Advocates who have been working for years to halt Glacier’s project, meanwhile, said they were deeply encouraged by Goldmark’s announcement.

“It’s a good decision. It’s a good move. How can we be anything but happy?” said Amy Carey, who heads Vashon-based Preserve Our Islands (POI).

“The questions they are raising ... are what those of us in the environment community, the scientists, the biologists, have long contended are issues,” she added. “To us, it’s quite clear that the lease does not meet the management plan. My read is that DNR recognizes that and is taking steps to see that those questions get answered.”

“I don’t believe that this commissioner makes empty gestures,” said Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury), who founded POI a decade ago. “What he’s saying is that the science he has right now is not adequate to prove to him that they can protect the reserve.”

Kathy Fletcher, who heads People For Puget Sound, also cheered the news.

“I welcome Commissioner Goldmark’s stance that the company needs to demonstrate its ability to operate in a way that doesn’t cause harm, and I agree with his skepticism about whether its possible to do that.”

The letter was accompanied by an 11-page document laying out DNR’s concerns about the lease and its relationship to the aquatic reserve’s management plan. Throughout the document, DNR notes that there is insufficient monitoring and performance measures to ensure that the dock and the activity it spawns won’t hurt fish, marine mammals or the habitat that makes the eastern edge of Maury Island important to the overall health of central Puget Sound.

Bridget Moran, DNR’s deputy supervisor for aquatics and agency resources, said that a review of the management plan suggests that there “were a number of very definitive standards that need to be met.”

But because baseline data and monitoring are not fully in place, “it will be hard to measure compliance,” she said.

The lease, for instance, calls for “no net loss” in the way the eelgrass beds “function” — or the habitat they provide to the nearshore ecosystem, she said.

“But we don’t have a sense of what that means for this site. So you need to know how much is out there now and if there are activities that might impact that. ... Those types of triggers as they relate to specific activities have not been defined,” she said.

The letter calls for Glacier to provide the required information by July 30 or to provide an “alternative deadline” and an explanation for the delay. Asked if the company can meet that deadline, Moran answered, “I believe so. They have actions planned for early August. It’s critical to us that they resolve this before they resume work.”

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