Things are starting to get interesting across the water on Maury Island! Protesters are chaining themselves together to stop the construction of the Maury Island gravel mine. If they can prevent construction until January 14th, construction may have to be delayed until August.
For over a decade now, Glacier Northwest, the Northwest subsidiary of one of the largest cement manufacturers in the world, the Japanese-owned Teiheyo Cement corporation, has been pushing for approval to dig a giant gravel pit on Maury Island. The pit will be the largest gravel and sand mine in the nation, located right in the heart of Puget Sound. Glacier Northwest has proposed extracting 1.5 – 2 million tons of sand and gravel per year, "depending on market conditions". The gravel would be loaded onto barges, which would require the construction of a new dock on the site.
There are a number of things that are concerning about the proposal.
The old ASARCO smelter in Tacoma spewed lead and arsenic all over the areas north of Commencement Bay, including Federal Way, Normandy Park, Tukwila, and especially over Vashon and Maury Islands. Digging on Maury Island not only risks releasing carcinogenic dust into the air, it also reduces the buffer between the toxic soil and the aquifer and risks contaminating the aquifer with heavy metals by a direct breach during mining operations. The aquifer is only source of water for island residents. It is estimated that 10,000 gallons of water per day would be required to control the carcinogenic dust, further compromising the island water supply.
To transport the gravel by barge a dock would be built right over the State’s only designated aquatic reserve. Maury island is one of the healthiest and least impacted marine shorelines in the state. The habitat supports migrating Chinook salmon and resident Orcas which feed in late fall and early winter months. In fact, in December 2007, Orcas were documented by the National Marine Fisheries Services in the waterways adjacent to Glacier's proposed dock on more days than they were documented at the San Juan Island's State whale watching park for the months of July and August combined. Dock construction and the subsequent barging operations would create underwater noise at levels that are harmful to the whales and other marine mammals.
It should be noted that Glacier Northwest has paid over $600,000 in fines due to environmental violations in the past decade alone, and as recently as 2007 was fined over $200,000 for the company's discharge contamination of the Thea Foss waterway. The reality is that for major corporations, fines for environmental violations are just part of the the cost of doing business. The potential profits are worth the risk of getting fined for breaking the rules.
Recently and right after he was voted out of office, Republican Public Lands Commissioner, Doug Sutherland, signed a 30-year lease to allow Glacier Northwest to build their new dock. I'll bet that the Maury Island issue was no small reason why Sutherland lost the election (at least that's why I voted against him). Signing that lease was the final step needed to get the gravel mine started. The very next day I noticed a big crane working on the shore, which is a couple miles across East Passage from my neighborhood on Dash Point. The bright lights at night suggest they are working around the clock to get that dock completed.
How this can happen after governor Christine Gregoire announced a major plan to clean up Puget Sound three years ago? It was described as the most-ambitious plan to date to clean up toxic dumps around the Sound, prevent oil spills and take other actions to revive the ailing estuary. The gravel mine is a direct contradiction to Gregoire’s rhetoric.
Sea kayakers should take notice. If you value the health of Puget Sound and are willing to do more than make sure your septic tank is in proper working order, not wash your car in your driveway or dump your used motor oil down the drain, then educate yourself and get involved. Spread the word and tell your friends!
Next time there is a flotilla rally, I want to be there!