Rep. Nelson: Decade of work with Glacier mine is paying off

For over a decade the battle to protect Maury Island has waged and, as The Beachcomber so correctly stated in last week’s edition, “what a difference a year makes” — or perhaps we could say what a difference a decade makes.

For over a decade the battle to protect Maury Island has waged and, as The Beachcomber so correctly stated in last week’s edition, “what a difference a year makes” — or perhaps we could say what a difference a decade makes.

We have known since January 1, 1999, that the Glacier site is contaminated with arsenic, lead and cadmium at double an industrial cleanup level. In fact, once Preserve Our Islands identified the levels of contamination at that site in 1999, the Department of Ecology reopened its investigation of the plume from the Asarco smelter.

The agency spent the last decade, after receiving information about the site, testing soils and preparing its case against Asarco for damages and successfully won $188.5 million in December 2009. That is an effort and a damages award that I am very proud of — Ecology did an exceptional job for our citizens. Approximately $100 million of that award is for damages related solely to the Tacoma smelter, and the Glacier site is identified as one of the areas to be remediated.

This past legislative session, as Glacier and Cascade Land Conservancy commenced negotiations for an acquisition of the site, it was clear that finding a way to keep the site in passive recreational use with minimal disturbance of the contaminated soils was an option for remediation.

Environmental organizations from across the state, along with elected officials, assisted in obtaining $15 million to use toward acquisition and remediation.

A broad environmental coalition, including People For Puget Sound, Washington Environmental Council, Audubon Washington, Preserve Our Islands and the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust, among others, has worked to protect the site due to the ecological values of the madrone forest but, most significantly, due to its valuable shoreline.

On December 3, 2000, Commissioner of Public Lands Jennifer Belcher declared the area an aquatic reserve because of its significance to Puget Sound. Commissioner Doug Sutherland reversed the designation, but later, on Nov. 8, 2004, he again declared it an aquatic reserve. Why? Very simply, as stated in the management plan prepared by Sutherland’s scientists: “The reserve is unique within the central Puget Sound sub-basin because it has a diverse set of habitats and species that include extensive eelgrass beds, kelp beds, sand and mudflats, and herring, surf smelt and sand lance spawning grounds.”

Since Glacier first discussed construction of a barge loading facility within this sensitive shoreline, times have changed and new information is constantly being obtained regarding the significance of this nearshore.

Chinook salmon have been listed as threatened, and the shoreline at the Glacier site has been identified as a juvenile Chinook salmon migratory corridor. Scientists have identified spawning of surf smelt, sand lance and herring at the site — each of these species are critical to the food web for salmon and, thus, for our orcas. And, of course, our beloved southern orcas were listed as endangered in 2005, and the shoreline off Maury was identified as a critical area for these creatures.

The science and the ecological values of the site have come to light largely due to the work of Islanders and organizations across the state, particularly Preserve Our Islands. Their work has been phenomenal.

In addition to recognizing environmental organizations that have worked to provide science and to obtain the $15 million appropriation, I also want to recognize the role that the Puget Sound Partnership played during this session. The partnership recognizes the ecological value of this site and was a key partner in making the request for funding to support the potential acquisition.

Having the partnership supporting our efforts should clarify, once and for all, that protecting Maury Island is important to the future of the Sound.

The battle will not be over unless a deal is negotiated; however, the right players are at the table. I am very pleased that Glacier and Cascade Land Conservancy are in discussions.

Finally, thank you all for your ongoing support — we will need to remain vigilant until we know negotiations have been successful. But for today, what a difference a decade makes.

— Rep. Sharon Nelson’s legislative district includes Vashon and Maury Island.