News

On a clear day, you could see a gravel mine

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

A proposed expansion of a gravel mine on Maury Island has island residents concerned about local ecology and health issues, and some say people living on this side of Puget Sound might have reason to be worried, too.

Glacier Northwest, which mines 10,000 tons of gravel a year from a 235-acre site on Maury Island, has submitted applications to expand its mining operation to more than 7 million tons a year. As much as 193 acres could be mined, according to Glacier, with a limit of 64 acres at any one time.

Mine opponents say an operation of that magnitude could affect residents on the Federal Way and Des Moines side of Puget Sound. Tugboats, bulldozers and the alarms from trucks driving in reverse would increase the amount of noise generated at the site, and lights on barges, tugboats and a dock could alter the way the island looks at night.

Some opponents predict orca pods, repelled by the noise and an increase in maritime traffic, might abandon the waters near the island.

If nothing else, residents here and visitors to Dash Point State Park could be looking at a change in the scenic shoreline view across Puget Sound toward Maury and Vashon islands, as barges and tugboats move tons of sand and gravel mined from the pit to construction sites around the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

Glacier Northwest, a subsidiary of Japanese cement giant Taiheiyo, has owned and operated the sand and gravel mine under the names of a succession of predecessors since 1936. Since 1971, Glacier has maintained permits to mine 10,000 tons of gravel a year from the east face of Maury Island.

Company vice president Ron Summers said the sand extracted from Maury has a variety of uses, from sandboxes to golf courses, concrete and fill for big construction projects like Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s third runway.

In 1997, Glacier request permits to expand its operation to 7.3 million tons of gravel a year. Island residents opposed to the expansion noted that amount equates to about three times in a day what the company currently does in a year.

Since the contract for fill for the runway project at the airport has already been awarded, Summers said Glacier anticipates mining closer to 2 or 3 million tons of gravel a year. At that level of mining, Glacier could fill two or three barges a day, he said.

“It’s not like there will be a barge there 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he said. Still, the company needs permission to load the barges any time of day because deliveries are based on the tides where they’re going, he noted.

To get started, Glacier needs several permits –– shorelines, land-use and grading among them –– and a permit from the state Department of Natural Resources to allow Glacier to build a new, longer dock where a dilapidated dock has been decaying for years.

Last March, the King County Department of Development and Environmental Services (DDES) denied Glacier’s shoreline permit application, which the company submitted in order to start work on the dock. On Aug. 16, Glacier appealed the decision to the county’s Shoreline Hearings Board. The board issued a ruling favorable to Glacier this month but hasn’t issued a final decision on King County’s permit denials.

If the board overturns the DDES ruling, the department is expected to appeal in King County Superior Court.

If the permits are approved, Glacier plans to install a moveable conveyor belt to get the mined gravel to the dock for loading into 10,000-ton barges. Once that’s finished, Glacier expects to increase its mining operations to meet market demand.

“It’s totally based on the market,” Summers said. “It changes year by year, based on the construction market.”

Glacier would be able to mine from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays, though Summers said he doesn’t anticipate much mining activity on the weekends. The permits would allow loading of barges 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Island residents have been protesting the expansion since Glacier submitted the first permit applications.

Libby McLarty, a longtime volunteer with anti-mine group Preserve Our Islands and a self-described soccer mom, used a scale model to show the impact to the island if Glacier is allowed to remove 7.3 million tons of gravel a year for the next 11 to 50 years.

“People live within 50 feet of this and a community has built up around this,” she said. “It’s huge for being on an island. Their property is a mile of shoreline. There’s no reason to have a project of this size and scope on an island. We’re like an encapsulated ecosystem.”

Former Washington governor Booth Gardener, who lives on nearby Vashon Island, also opposes Glacier’s plans.

“It’s a huge project, and this is a small, quaint, rural community,” he said. “It’s just not compatible. Aside from the environmental issues, there are complicated kelp beds on the shore. And the noise –– they probably would try to mitigate the noise, but it would still be a lot of noise.”

SUBHEAD OR DROP CAP

Noise, lights and orcas

Islanders aren’t looking forward to the sound of tugboats, bulldozers and a conveyor belt dropping sand into a barge up to 24 hours a day. But sound experts said the noise probably won’t have much of an impact on Federal Way’s side of the Sound.

Curt Horner, a mechanical engineer specializing in wave phenomena at Seattle-King County Public Health Department, conducted over-water studies to see how noise generated at the mine could affect residents here. He said some frequencies will cross the water under certain atmospheric conditions, like a very still morning, with mid-range frequencies coming across the water more often. Noise also would be more audible if the wind was blowing the right way, he added.

Still, he said noise would have a greater affect on Seattle than on Des Moines, Federal Way or the Northeast Tacoma area. Federal Way is farther south, he said, and most of the noise coming across the water would probably be drowned out by a more-ubiquitous noise here: Traffic.

“If you were down on the waterfront, you probably could hear noise late at night,” he said. “You probably wouldn’t be able to hear it if you were inside. It probably wouldn’t even awaken someone who was sleeping.”

The county’s DDES required Glacier to mitigate some of the noise that might affect people living near the mine on Maury Island with a 12-foot berm on the perimeter of the mine.

In addition to noise concerns, there could be impact from lights on the dock, tugboats and barges. During night work, lights on the tugs and the dock would illuminate the dock while the barges were being loaded. Dock lighting would be shielded to shine directly into barges, according to an environmental impact study (EIS) for the project, but tugs could use spotlights or bright deck lights to maneuver the barges out on the water. During periods of less activity at the mine, the landscape is anticipated to look much as it does now, according to the EIS.

But the impact to orca whales off Maury and Vashon islands has recently become of prominent concern to mine expansion opponents. According to University of Washington whale researcher David Bain, sound underwater could repel local orca whale pods, leading them to abandon the area for quieter, calmer areas.

In the EIS, consultant firm Jones and Stokes said the increase in mining operations would have minimal impacts on salmon, which orcas eat, because adult salmon would swim around the barges and propeller wash. The consultants said the mining operation would have a negligible impact on whales because the species are used to human activity and because the area isn’t a major feeding or breeding ground for the whales.

A spokeswoman for Jones and Stokes declined to comment to the Mirror because of the pending appeal in Glacier’s permit application.

But Bain said mining-related noise could repel Puget Sound’s orcas. He likened the scraping noise from sand and gravel pouring into the barges to the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard, and he said it’s a similar noise to what’s used to keep whales away from fish farms.

Summers, Glacier’s vice president, disagrees.

“There’s no impact,” he said. “It’s been looked at. It’s been talked about. Barge traffic has been going on in Puget Sound for years.”

SUBHEAD OR DROP CAP

‘Not now, not ever’

Many island residents have a simple reason for opposing the project: They say it would be just plain ugly.

“It’s a huge amphitheater of noise and a huge wound,” said islander Jessica Lisovsky. “People in Des Moines, Federal Way and down to parts of Tacoma will be looking at this.”

Glacier has said it doesn’t intend to mine all 7 million tons a year if the market doesn’t demand that much. But island residents note the company hasn’t reduced its proposed extraction in its permit request, even after losing out on a bid to provide fill for the third-runway project.

But while the views from this side of the Sound will probably change, they might not be badly affected.

The environmental study of the project indicates the views will change as mining progresses, with a noticeable difference between areas under active mining and areas that remain forested. Glacier has said it will maintain a 50-foot vegetated perimeter buffer around the mine and a 400-foot shoreline buffer to mitigate visual impacts.

Still, Glacier’s conveyor belt, new dock, and barge and tugboat traffic could give the beach a more industrial feel –– and be less friendly to recreational boaters and divers. According to the study, up to four 10,000-ton barges or smaller barges could be visible queuing up off-shore, potentially 24 hours a day, during periods of intensive mining, and the shoreline could become the site of “exposed sand and gravel and workers.”

But Summers pointed out the bluffs will remain in place, screening the east side of the Sound from most of the visual impacts and absorbing a lot of the noise.

“I honestly don’t think there’s going to be a lot of impact,” he said.

As Glacier’s appeal awaits a ruling from the Shoreline Hearings Board, County Councilman Dow Constantine, whose district includes Maury Island, said he’ll work to make sure the mining company doesn’t get the permits it needs to finish the project.

“If I have anything to say about it, King County will defend that position to the state Supreme Court because it’s legally correct and morally just,” he said. “There will be no dock, no barging –– not now, not ever.”

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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