Governor’s silence on Glacier troubles activists

Over the last several years, as the drama over Glacier Northwest’s efforts to expand its gravel-mining operation on Maury Island has unfolded, a handful of the region’s key political leaders have stepped onto the stage.

Over the last several years, as the drama over Glacier Northwest’s efforts to expand its gravel-mining operation on Maury Island has unfolded, a handful of the region’s key political leaders have stepped onto the stage.

King County Executive Ron Sims has issued statements noting his concern about Glacier’s plans, as has U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott. Local lawmakers, from former state Sen. Erik Poulsen to state Sen. Joe McDermott, have fought Glacier’s efforts, stating publicly their opposition. King County Councilman Dow Constantine has written commentaries lambasting Glacier’s plans, perspectives that have run in the region’s largest daily newspapers.

Silent in all of this has been Gov. Christine Gregoire, a top elected leader who has made the restoration and protection of Puget Sound one of her highest environmental priorities.

When she came to Vashon this summer to attend a fundraiser for her re-election campaign, she didn’t mention the issue, those who attended said. When Sims issued the corporation its “notice to proceed” a month ago, she didn’t say a word. When efforts to forge a legislative solution were in full swing two years ago, she was publicly quiet.

Kathy Fletcher, the executive director of People For Puget Sound and a seasoned political observer, said politicians often avoid taking public stands on tough issues.

“If something’s really controversial and they’re not in a direct decision-making role, it’s not unusual to duck an issue,” Fletcher said. “But with this governor and her interest in Puget Sound, it is surprising.”

Some speculate that the governor has avoided the issue because of her relationship with the Durkan family, a powerful Democratic clan with ties both to Gregoire and Glacier. Martin Durkan Sr., a former state lawmaker and the patriarch of the family who died in 2005, was once described as “one of the best governors Washington never had” — so far-reaching was his power and clout.

His son, Jamie Durkan, is one of Glacier’s lobbyists. According to the state Public Disclosure Commission, he receives $3,500 a month from Glacier, making the mining company his second-largest client, right behind the $4,000 a month he receives from the city of Tukwila. And Martin Durkan Sr.’s daughter, Ryan Durkan, a lawyer, has been hired to represent Glacier in the past, said Pete Stoltz, the permit coordinator for Glacier.

Meanwhile, Jenny Durkan, another daughter, is close to the governor, published reports show. According to a February 2005 story in The Seattle Times, headlined “Jenny Durkan, Gregoire’s staunch ally,” the Seattle attorney has been both a confidante and a friend to the governor. Indeed, it was Jenny Durkan who helped the governor through one of her toughest legal issues — the effort by Republicans to remove her from office after her razor-thin win over Republican Dino Rossi four years ago.

State Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury), who has been waging a battle against Glacier since it announced its expansion plans more than a decade ago, said she’s long believed Gregoire’s relationship with Jenny Durkan helped to explain her silence on the issue. Noting Durkan’s success in beating back the GOP’s attempt to strip the governor of her office a few years ago, Nelson said, “I would assume after a situation like that there would be a very strong loyalty.”

Nelson said the environmental community has often tried to get the governor to take a public stand on the issue, always to no avail.

“What she has often said is that there’s nothing she could do,” Nelson said.

A few weeks ago, when Glacier got the green light from the county to begin construction, Nelson attempted again to get the governor to intervene, asking a top aide to the governor whether Gregoire could join the environmental community in seeking an injunction.

“I was told I’d hear back in a few hours. I never did,” Nelson said.

But others who know her well say they find it hard to believe that Gregoire — the state’s former attorney general for 12 years — would let personal connections influence her stance on a significant environmental issue.

“She’s got a great deal of integrity,” said Elliot Marks, a conservation leader who worked for the governor as a senior policy advisor during her first term in office. “It just doesn’t seem like the kind of thing she’d do.”

Keith Philips, Gregoire’s current environmental policy advisor, also refuted allegations that Gregoire’s connection to Jenny Durkan influenced her stance on Glacier, an accusation he says he’s heard from time to time.

“I’ve had many conversations with the governor. I don’t think I’ve met someone with a higher sense of integrity and fairness, even when it’s to her detriment sometimes,” Philips said. “This issue with Jenny has come up. It’s been an accusation. It’s not true … We walk her through the issues very carefully. She asks good questions. There’s no hint that this is a political issue for her at all.”

In early December, when state Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland issued Glacier the lease to state-owned aquatic lands it needed to begin constructing its barge-loading pier and Sims gave the corporation the notice to proceed, the governor, at her request, was being kept fully apprised of the situation, Philips said. He gave her a briefing on Sunday, Dec. 7, two days after Glacier began its construction work, he said.

“She’s paid a lot of attention to this,” he said.

Two years ago, when the Legislature was taking a close look at the Glacier situation, Gregoire asked Jay Manning, who heads the state Department of Ecology, to attempt to find a compromise, Philips said. Fletcher, too, recalled Manning’s role: “I know that Jay threw himself into that for a while.”

There was talk of buying out Glacier, Philips recalled. “My sense is that the number (the governor’s staff came up with) was missing a couple zeros,” he noted. They also talked about a land swap — finding a state-owned piece of property that Glacier could have in exchange for its 235-acre swath on Maury.

“We never got to that point, because we couldn’t find a piece of (state-owned) land that had sand and gravel the company could mine,” Philips said.

Meanwhile, he added, the governor trusted both the permitting process and the judicial oversight opponents would seek, believing that enough checks and balances were in place to ensure Glacier didn’t violate the law in its attempt to extract more sand and gravel from Maury.

It’s true, Philips said, that she hasn’t used her bully pulpit to weigh in on the issue. But repeatedly, he said, she’s asked if the state permits are “as tight as the law today allows. … The agencies have applied the law; they’ve applied it to the full extent. … As a former attorney general, she respects the role of the agencies and the role of the courts to oversee those agencies.”

But Amy Carey, who heads Preserve Our Islands, the Vashon-based organization leading the battle against Glacier, said the governor’s refusal to take a public stance has been frustrating and at times confusing.

“I hear that over and over again from Islanders — where does the governor stand on this? What does she think?” Carey said. “I can appreciate that she’s being briefed. She should then have an opinion.”

Carey also took issue with Philips’ contention that the permits have been as tight as the law allows. The water quality permit, for instance, which POI is challenging in court, could have been amended to include a requirement for a formal cleanup of the arsenic-laced soil, she said. Similarly, she said, a discharge permit could have been made tougher.

“There’s no requirement for monitoring arsenic … in runoff or the storm-water process … or any part of the operations,” she said of the state permits. “The word ‘arsenic’ is not in there.”

What’s more, the Puget Sound Partnership, a new agency created at the governor’s request to help oversee the Sound’s protection and restoration, has not taken a stance on whether Glacier’s controversial expansion plans will hurt the Sound’s ecosystem — a silence that also has troubled Glacier’s opponents.

Paul Bergman, a spokesman for the partnership, said the problem was timing. The new agency decided not to take a stance on any Puget Sound issues until it completed its action plan for the Sound’s recovery. Sutherland handed Glacier its lease to state-owned aquatic lands the day after the Puget Sound Partnership issued its action plan, Bergman noted.

“We got a lot of e-mail traffic from people saying, ‘Please stop this project,’” Bergman said. “But we don’t have the ability for an activity already under way to go back and unwind all of that … We can’t rewrite history on this.”

Bergman said he believes it’s unfair to suggest the governor isn’t doing enough to protect Puget Sound. Despite one of the worst budget scenarios in recent history, she’s managed — in the proposed budget she just released — to increase funding for Puget Sound’s restoration even while most state agencies experienced significant cuts, Bergman said.

“I think her actions speak louder than her words,” he said.

Nonetheless, he added, David Dicks, who heads the Puget Sound Partnership, was dismayed by Sutherland’s decision to give Glacier a lease in the final days of his tenure as the head of the state Department of Natural Resources.

Many have noted the close ties Glacier has to Sutherland; the corporation gave $50,000 to a political action committee working to see Sutherland elected. Bergman said Sutherland’s lease decision “was like a middle-of-the-night pardon.”

“David was very upset about how this ended,” Bergman said. “It was outrageous how this was kind of crammed through at the end.”