Glacier gets OK for Maury Island dock, opponents vow to keep fighting

Glacier Northwest received its final permit from a government agency last week for its dock-building project on Maury Island and says it could begin constructing the 400-foot pier that would open the door to its 192-acre gravel mine as early as mid-August.

Glacier Northwest received its final permit from a government agency last week for its dock-building project on Maury Island and says it could begin constructing the 400-foot pier that would open the door to its 192-acre gravel mine as early as mid-August.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, saying the pier will not “result in significant impacts to the human environment,” approved a final environmental assessment of the project last week and two days later issued a permit granting the sand and gravel company permission to begin building.

The agency did not require Glacier to conduct a full environmental impact statement, as opponents to the project had requested.

Olivia Romano, a senior biologist and project manager for the Corps, said the agency issued the permit after reviewing more than 500 comments submitted by Islanders and others concerned about the project earlier this year. The agency decided to allow Glacier to go forward, she said, because the company has agreed to undertake measures “mitigating its environmental impacts” and “monitoring to ensure that any unseen impacts will be found.”

“We reviewed the project independently, and we’re not saying there won’t be impacts. There will be some. But they’re not sufficient, with the mitigation proposed, to withhold the permit,” Romano said.

Glacier officials said the decision clears the way for them to begin removing its old dock and building a new barge-loading facility as early as Aug. 16, should the state Department of Natural Resources issue the corporation a lease to the submerged lands surrounding its site on the eastern flank of Maury Island.

Glacier has ordered pilings for the new structure, has begun fabricating the long tube that will house the sand-and-gravel conveyer belt and is lining up contractors to undertake the work, said Pete Stoltz, who oversees permits for the company.

“The Corps worked very carefully to review all the appropriate documents and to make sure they made an appropriate decision,” Stoltz said. “We have a lot of confidence in the Corps’ decision.”

But opponents said the legal battle is not over and that it’s far from certain that Glacier will be able to begin building this summer. Sharon Nelson, a state representative who a decade ago founded Preserve Our Islands (POI), the grassroots organization that has led the fight against Glacier, noted that Glacier announced in 1997 it would begin building in 90 days.

“It was premature then, and it’s still premature,” she said.

Amy Carey, POI’s current president, said the organization will challenge the Corps’ decision in federal court. The group plans to seek an injunction, which would temporarily halt the project, as well as ask the court to order Glacier to conduct a federal environmental impact statement (EIS), the highest review of the project possible under federal law.

“There’s a strong likelihood that we’ll prevail, a high likelihood that they’ll say an EIS is required,” Carey said.

The Corps’ environmental assessment that cleared the way for its permit to Glacier is flawed on a number of fronts, Carey said. The agency, for instance, failed to fully address the impact the project could have on property values, despite letters from Island real estate agents that it could cost homeowners millions of dollars in lost value and the fact that such an analysis is required by law, Carey said.

“The Island realtors made strong points, and they were essentially dismissed,” said Carey, who also works as a real estate agent. “And for the Corps to dismiss that is extremely negligent.”

Carey said she was not surprised by the Corps’ decision; the agency, she said, rarely denies permits.

“The system has always been stacked against POI. It’s a broken system. From day one, it’s been an uphill battle,” she added. “But that being said, this is not a battle that’s over, by any means.”

Others familiar with the situation, however, say it will be hard for POI to prevail in U.S. District Court, where there are currently few judges sympathetic to environmental causes.

Matt Bergman, a lawyer on Vashon who last year went to the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council and urged POI to consider negotiating a settlement with Glacier, said he has great regard for the many people who “worked long and hard and passionately” to block Glacier’s expansion plans. But he said he doubts they’ll be able to win in the courtroom at this point.

“An injunction is a very hard thing to get. And a federal court would be hesitant to enter a dispute that has been so thoroughly litigated over a 10-year period,” he said. “I would certainly be hopeful and happy if such an eventuality were to come to pass. But it would take greater legal minds than mine to achieve that outcome.”

The only solution now, Bergman argued, is a political one. Bergman, who is active in Democratic politics in the state and knows many of the state’s top elected officials, has met with Gov. Christine Gregoire on the Glacier issue; she’s sympathetic to Islanders’ concerns, he said.

“I want to be as helpful as I can in the political realm in coming up with a solution,” he added.

The fight over Glacier’s proposed sand and gravel mine — a dramatic expansion over the intermittent mining that has occurred on the site for the past several decades — has put Maury Island at the center of one of the highest profile land-use debates in recent years. Eleven years ago, Glacier first proposed its expansion plans, saying it wanted to remove 7.5 million tons a year over the course of several years. The company — owned by a Japanese conglomerate — has since revised that figure; Stoltz say Glacier hopes to mine 1.5 million to 2 million tons a year.

To facilitate the huge operation, Glacier proposed a state-of-the-art pier that huge barges would sidle up to, carting off 10,000 tons of gravel per barge for any number of projects throughout the region and elsewhere. The barge-loading operation would run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. five days a week.

News that Glacier had cleared the final hurdle in its proposal to build a new pier hit some Islanders hard, especially those who live near the project and have worked with others to try to block it. Hundreds of people turned out for a meeting that the Corps held on Vashon a three years ago, where Islander after Islander spoke out in opposition to the sand and gravel mine. Some say they can’t fathom how the corporation has now gotten the OK to move forward in light of mounting concern over the ecological health of Puget Sound.

Barbara Garrison, who has lived in her Gold Beach home not far from the Glacier site for 16 years, said she was shocked to learn that the corporation has cleared nearly every hurdle.

“This is such a beautiful community,” she said. “It’s just going to completely destroy the feeling of it.”

“I don’t see how they can justify it, with all this talk of cleaning up Puget Sound,” she added.

Ann Stateler, coordinator of the Vashon Hydrophone Project, which measures whale vocalizations to gain greater understanding about whale behavior, testified at that meeting on Vashon in May 2005. She, too, said she felt heart-sick when she heard the news.

“I almost wanted to cry when I read it in the paper,” she said. “I just feel like it’s a betrayal. It’s a betrayal to our endangered southern resident orcas. It’s a betrayal to Puget Sound, because it defies logic to … destroy this last piece of relatively pristine habitat. And of course it’s a betrayal to those of us who live on Vashon. This industrial project does not fit our Island or our values.”

The Corps’ decision means the debate over Glacier’s future on Vashon moves to the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the agency that oversees the Maury Island Aquatic Reserve, a conservation area that surrounds Glacier’s 235-acre site. The state agency, headed by Doug Sutherland, has to issue a lease to Glacier before it can begin building its proposed dock.

Sutherland, who’s running for reelection, has received financial support from both Glacier and the Washington Aggregates & Concrete Association, an industry association that includes a Glacier representative on its board.

But Patty Henson, communications director at DNR, said the review of the lease request — which Glacier has already made — will be thorough and impartial.

“It will be handled with care, just as all of our leasing arrangements are,” she said.

The Corps issued its permit last Wednesday. The following day, Sutherland issued a memo to Fran McNair, the agency’s aquatic lands steward, outlining the conditions Glacier has to observe to meet the requirements of the aquatic reserve’s management plan. McNair is charged with making a recommendation to Sutherland on the permit; should it be granted, Sutherland will be the state official who signs it, DNR staff said.

Among the conditions Sutherland told McNair to consider before issuing her recommendation were the following:

• Stormwater or or other runoff from the upland portions of the site, where soil is laced with arsenic, needs to be treated to eliminate any direct discharges into Puget Sound;

• Noise impacts from barge operations should be minimized so as to not affect salmon, herring, surf smelt and other fish.

• Intermittent lighting from barging operations should be minimized; and

• Loading operations must include practices that will limit gravel and sand spillage.

Rich Doenges, DNR’s aquatic resources division manager, said he and others in the agency will review all the information that Glacier has submitted as part of its lease request. The lease, he added, is a negotiated document, not a regulatory permit.

“We’re going to take all the time we need to fully evaluate it to determine whether the conditions and requirements in the permit meet the standards and guidelines set out in the management plan for the Maury Island Aquatic Reserve,” he said.