Panel to study Maury mineral rights issue

As a result of a last-minute addition to the state’s operating budget last week, a legislative committee will investigate whether the state owns the mineral rights on Glacier Northwest’s 235-acre site on Maury Island.

The budget included $112,000 for the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, chaired by Sen. Phil Rockefeller (D-Bainbridge Island), to study deeds and other documents that show how the state conveyed lands to mining companies decades ago.

The situation on Maury Island, where critics of Glacier’s proposed mine have called into question whether the mining company even owns the sand and gravel it wants to excavate, will be used as a case study in the investigation, according to the budget item.

Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) said she was pleased the language made it into the final budget bill. She and other lawmakers tried to get a bill passed that would have required the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to withhold issuing the lease Glacier needs to build a barge-loading pier until the question of mineral ownership is resolved. The legislation passed in the Senate but never made it to the House floor.

“I think it goes to the importance of the issue we raised,” Nelson said of the last-minute addition to the state budget.

According to Nelson, there could be as many as 64 sites where the state withheld mineral rights but has failed to collect revenue for the mineral extraction.

“It could be worth tens of millions, even hundreds of millions,” Nelson said.

Patty Henson, a spokesperson for DNR, said the agency disagrees with Nelson and believes the state conveyed its mineral rights when it sold state lands. Even so, she said, the agency welcomes the investigation.

“At our request, the assistant attorney general (for DNR) has researched the legal history of the … language and the treatment of sand and gravel all the way back to statehood. The documents … appear to indicate that sand and gravel was conveyed,” Henson said. “But it will be helpful to have the matter studied by an independent set of eyes.”

In another development, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said that as of Monday the agency had received about 300 comments on its draft environmental assessment, issued last month. The assessment, considered critical to Glacier’s effort to dramatically increase its mining activity on Maury, said Glacier’s proposed 400-foot pier would have “no significant impact” on the near-shore environment.

The deadline for comments on the draft report was Monday.

But Amy Carey, president of Preserve Our Islands, a group fighting the Glacier expansion, took issue with the Corps’ suggestion that it had only received 300 comments. She said her organization’s Web site received more than 1,000 visits on Thursday, a dramatic increase in its usual activity because of an effort on many Islanders’ parts to get comments sent to the agency before Monday’s deadline.

As a result of the last-minute interest, Carey said, the e-mail box for Olivia Romano, the Corps’ project manager overseeing the assessment, was overwhelmed, and Carey got calls from some Islanders who said their e-mailed comments were bounced back to them.

Romano acknowledged that her e-mail box was temporarily swamped but said it was fixed as soon as the Corps realized the problem.

Asked if she was concerned that some comments didn’t get through as a result, she said, “I guess that’s always a possibility. But I don’t see it as a concern. There are other ways to submit comments.”

Meanwhile, the Corps said it hopes to have its final environmental assessment issued by the end of March — less than two weeks from the comment deadline.

“There’s a full-time project manager looking at (the comments), and that’s all she’ll be doing,” Corps spokeswoman Patricia Graesser said when asked if the Corps would have enough time to consider the comments.