State lawmakers approve funds to buy out Glacier Northwest gravel mine

The state, King County and a regional conservation organization are working to purchase Glacier Northwest’s 236-acre gravel mine on Maury Island and put the land into public ownership — a remarkable denouement, should it come to pass, to one of the region’s biggest environmental battles.

The state Legislature passed a budget late Monday night that includes $15 million to go towards the multi-million-dollar deal. The county is also working to secure some funds to complement the state dollars, county officials said.

Cascade Land Conservancy (CLC), meanwhile, is brokering the effort and is in active discussions with Glacier’s corporate parents to see if a deal can be struck that meets the corporation’s business objectives, a spokesman for the organization said.

“We have a property owner now who is at least committing that they’re willing to sell the property. That is a change. That represents a positive development,” said Sung Yang, director of government relations for County Executive Dow Constantine. “That being said, we still have a ways to go. This executive is going to work as hard as he can to realize the goal of putting this property into public hands.”

A spokesman for Glacier, meanwhile, said the corporation is open to selling the land, should public agencies find a way to cobble together a funding package that ensures a fair market price for the expansive property on Maury’s eastern edge.

“They’re interested in purchasing the property,” Pete Stoltz said of CLC’s efforts. “There was some number of folks who asked them to do that and asked us to look at it, and we’re willing to do so.”

The negotiations are complex and far from complete, Stoltz said. But, he added, “All of the parties are committed to doing what they can to make a situation work here.”

The Legislature adjourned early Tuesday morning after passing the state’s supplemental capital budget — which includes a line item for $15 million to spend acquiring and restoring lands on Maury and Vashon, funds the state received as part of the wide-ranging settlement from the Asarco contamination case. The copper smelter’s plume contaminated parts of Tacoma, Ruston and a swath of Maury, including the site Glacier owns.

State Rep. Sharon Nelson, who first entered the public spotlight more than a decade ago as a citizen activist leading the charge against Glacier’s plans, played a key role in securing the funding.

“This is a huge win for Sharon Nelson,” Bill Robinson, a lobbyist for The Nature Conservancy, said Monday night from the Legislature.

Nelson, reached Tuesday morning, said she was pleased by the turn of events.

“I think it’s incredible news. It means that there’s another opportunity to look at putting this into conservation,” she said.

This is the second attempt at trying to secure funds to purchase the gravel mine site from Glacier. Another effort was waged several years ago — negotiations that fizzled when Glacier walked from the table, according to those active in the effort.

This time around, some said, Glacier is sounding a different note — in part, they said, because of a federal court decision last summer that struck down one of Glacier’s key permits for the construction of its barge-loading pier and forced Glacier to begin a more cumbersome and extensive environmental review process.

Sen. Joe McDermott (D-West Seattle) called that court decision a “cataclysmic event.”

“When the federal court struck down Glacier’s permit, all of the sudden more conversation with the multi-national (corporate parent) became a real possibility,” he said.

After that court ruling, McDermott said, he worked with Nelson and state Sen. Eileen Cody (D-West Seattle) to “make sure the state was postioned to help as best we could.”

Amy Carey, head of Preserve Our Islands, and Tom Dean, who heads the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust, said they’ve also been privy to the discussions. Both said they’re hopeful this time around the effort will come to fruition.

“This is a nice development. We’re very pleased,” Carey said.

“I think it could be a great resolution for everybody,” said Dean, who was involved in the previous effort to secure the gravel mine. “Obviously it’s good for the Island. It’s what Islanders want to see. ... And if it meets the company’s business needs, it has to be good for them.”

Glacier’s decade-long effort to dramatically increase its sand and gravel extraction at its mine site on Maury has been one of the biggest and most contentious environmental battles in the region.

Conservationists and some public officials — including Constantine — have argued that the project could harm Puget Sound, destroy fragile eelgrass beds and hurt a range of imperiled species, including chinook salmon and orca whales.

Until U.S. District Judge Ricardo Martinez’s ruling last summer, however, Glacier won the protracted legal and political battle at every turn.

And in December 2008, with its final permit in hand, Glacier began building the 305-foot pier — critical infrastructure to its plans to begin pulling millions of tons of gravel a year off of Maury.

Martinez, however, said the federal government failed in its review of the project and ordered Glacier to go through a more rigorous process. The ruling put a temporary stop to Glacier’s construction efforts, which were slated to resume in August.

Carey, with POI, said she never lost faith in the Island’s ability to put an end to Glacier’s expansion. “We’ve been saying all along, ‘Don’t close the door on this,’” she said.

At the same time, she sounded a cautious note about the latest turn of events, noting that the complex deal is still in flux.

“This fight is not over. This is just one more chapter,” she said.

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