Monday, January 05, 2009

Vashon Maury Island Glacier Gravel Pit Protesters Mostly Shooting Blanks

I live on Vashon Island where the popularity of supporting the on going protest against the expansion of Glacier Northwest’s mining project on neighboring Maury Island is up there with supporting motherhood, scorning Republicans, wearing wool socks with sandals, wearing tie-dye shit, bitching about the ferry service and being an hippie.

In other words it sacred stuff with the mostly left leaning liberally bent artsy-fartsy crowd of on island folks.

Although I moved here only 4 years ago from West Seattle one of the first things I became aware of was that people who SUPPORT the gravel pit project, if anyone had the nerve to actually openly proclaim it, are considered akin to child molesters, and/or Republicans.

Such was the passion of the “no gravel pit” liberal majority of people who live here. Everyone I met was against the gravel pit but, it seemed to me that many of them, when asked about it, really couldn't articulate why other than it seemed to them to be in line with the island thought police belief system and their personal, but rather vague general environmentally related concerns.

So by writing this article I expect to probably soon be impeached from my position as a Democratic Party PCO, emotionally tarred and feathered by my neighbors and band from participating in the social scene at the Café Luna and local Thriftway. But I will go to the store and for coffee with my head held high in defiance for I must live and eat after all and I must just get my opinion out there before I die from the peer pressure to conform with the majority and the island group think on the subject.

Lately the protest here have reach critical mass because the mining company’s ten year odyssey to expand the mining of aggregate and sand on it’s Maury Island site and build a dock to load the materials out has apparently reached the stage where it has jumped through all the Federal, State and County, hoops and obtained all the necessary permits to go ahead and begin construction of the proposed new loading dock.

Work has begun to remove the old crumbling remains of a previous company dock. In response the die hard locals have been rallying and protesting in mass to the extent of even attempting what appear to be symbolic blockade by sea or standing around singing cornball knock off Christmas carols about Glacier being the big bad modern corporate robber baron who is going to poison all the local children after it kills all the salmon while it contaminates your water.

The main opposition to the expansion of mining is based on a number of claims by protesters that the project will damage the sole remaining aquifer which supplies the island its water by exposing it to arsenic left over in the top soil on the Maury Island site from years of being up wind from the old ASARCO Tacoma Smelter, an environmental nightmare of bygone years brought to you by a company that was one of the worse polluters ever. Glacier had no direct association with the arsenic pollution on Maury Island, but like all islanders was a victim of ASARCO past irresponsible behavior.

I always find it ironic that so many tree hugging environmentally conscious people could end up living on a island where the top soil is some of the most arsenic contaminated you can find in the Western world.

Opponents also believe that the mining expansion would damage the marine habitat, including damage to ell grass, salmon, orca whales, and other species who occupy the waters around the site of the mining and proposed loading dock.

Trying to be open minded about whose right here is difficult. On one hand you have a foreign owed company in Glacier who seems to have met all the requirements needed to go ahead and mine the land it owns and build a dock to efficiently get it’s products to market.

It's hard to argue that Glacier has not gone through a politically and legally charged 10 yearlong permit process successfully. While on the other hand you have a large number of citizens who actually live here on Vashon and Maury Islands who have raised valid concerns about just what the expansion would mean to the environment here, their quality of life and of course some adjacent property values and the views from their sunken deck.

You would think that the permit process could be trusted and would assure that any valid environment impact claims are addressed. Remember, this is not a project where it can be argued that the project somehow slipped through the cracks of regulation. All three members of the 34th District State legislature delegation have openly opposed the project for years. In fact 34th District State Legislator Sharon Nelson actually lives on Maury Island and made her political bones based on organizing opposition to the project through her affiliation with Preserve Our Island, an organization who’s main goal has been aimed at stopping the Glacier mining expansion and dock from the beginning.

There was an attempt to change the rules of the game when a State Senate bill was introduced last year that would of turned Maury Island into a aquatic reserve. You got to give it to them for trying. The effect of which would of further hamper Glacier's attempt to get the necessary permits. It failed in the spring of 2008 when it couldn't get through the house. Other legal challenges to the permit to proceed with the project were recently struck down by the State Supreme Court when it upheld a appeals court decision based on provisions of the Shoreline Protection Act and Glacier’s right to build a dock apparently grandfathered into that same law some years ago.

I’m personally torn on whether the project should go forward. Many Democrats legislators who don't have a direct interest in the issue and tend to be more conservative when it comes to regulating valid business activities and ventures take no position on the issue. They believe that government can sometimes interfere with commerce and job creation by over regulation and burdensome bureaucratic requirements.

Democrats and liberals who are indifferent about the project. like the Governor herself it could be argued, don't speak out about it because it's political kryptonite with the left to do so and would be just plain dumb to lose votes over if it is not necessary to be openly for or against it. The opponents of the project tend to want to turn those who also see Glacier's side of the story into political footballs who they like to kick to the curb. Politicians from the 34th District pretty much tow the party line because they wouldn't get elected if they suddenly proclaimed they should try to be open minded about Glacier.

As a former small businessperson myself I tend to agree that government can be a hindrance to commerce when it interferes even when businesses are good neighbors and acting in good faith.

Certainly here it can be argued that Glacier did what was required by law to do to get the permits and that the opponents of the expansion had a level playing field on which to exercise their opposition and try and stop it from going forward. The opponents of the mine expansion and dock lost this one it appears even though they had considerable political support from within King County and in the State Legislature.

One of the observations I’ve made being here on island is that the opponents just plain don’t want any kind of expansion of the gravel pit or dock no matter what environmental permit requirements are met or not met period. It’s been a non-starter for 10 years with the opponents from the beginning. It’s this sort of closed minded approach that troubles me even though I would say my liberal credentials are as good as the next liberal hippie baby boomer out here.

But, they should be frank about it and actually say that they are against aggregate or gravel pit mining of any kind anywhere, and that they simply don’t believe that the mining of aggregate rock is an important local business resource or governmental or building industry consideration which effects thousands of workers or that could save taxpayers money given the state of the economy. Instead I think it can be argued that they have raised a number of red herrings in opposition to the expansion and tried to expanded the playing field when Glacier continued to meet every demand and requirement place upon it. Opponents arguments tend to be based on emotional issues rather then legal ones.

But it's intellectually dishonest I think for the opposition not to come right out and say, "we don't want your freaking gravel pit no matter how environmentally safe you make it"!

One thing is for sure, opponents of the gravel pit and dock have also kept the company honest and that part of it represents a good thing and something that was needed to insure that Glacier fully complied with the law. The opponents should keep Glacier's feet to the fire but I think they also have to admit that they are mostly shooting blanks here if they think that the project can be stopped at this stage short of someone buying the company out and closing the gravel pit.

What are Glacier’s rights here one should ask? It’s apparently true that Glacier is sitting on a gold mine of an rather rare and accessible aggregate deposit and has known for a long time that it would become more valued as time passed. Aggregate and sand is used for cement and building of course and is one of the basic needs for anyone building anything. Because of this the business value and profits from the expansion are sure to grow considerably.

Think about the massive highway construction that is planned in Washington State and the immediate region in the coming years and you can see its won’t take a rocket scientist to figure out Glacier’s motivation in using extensive and costly lobbying tactics to get it’s way in the political arena on the approval of the project.

But was it above board and legal. I would say you have to answer that question, yes.

Glacier makes the argument that having to truck aggregate long distances, which is what is done now, would add millions of taxpayer dollars to state projects and that seems to make sense. Also if opponents were successful in stopping the loading dock part of the project Glacier would be running a significant number of large trailer dump trucks via the Vashon Highway route and on to Washington State Ferries in order to get it’s aggregate to market. One barge hauls 186 trailer truckload.

I’m sure most islanders wouldn’t want to see all those trucks rolling down a two lane potholed Vashon highway and on to the ferry on a daily basis for the next 35 years for various reasons. So the new loading dock makes sense from a safety as well as a wear and tear on the ferry system and highways system point of view.

Most local Democratic politicians are not going to dare to speak their minds candidly on this issue or be open-minded about Glacier’s side of the story. It would be political suicide for them to even hint that Glacier has done everything required of it to get the permits and so now we should perhaps try and build a working relationship with the company to make sure that it does what it has promised to do. Protect the environment and the aquifer while it mines and meets it obligations as a responsible company and good island neighbor as it expands mining on Maury and builds and uses its loading dock. Glacier owned land has been zoned for mining for more than 40 years and it seems that they have a history of trying to follow environmental laws and regulations.

Unfortunately, most island types are rather lefty knee jerk stereo-typically environmentally polarized and closed minded about business or corporations being allowed to do anything. Even when it’s pretty obvious that it has done everything required of it to meet community and government environment requirements. It creates a nearly impossible atmosphere to work or be reasonable.

Admitting that Glacier has made reasonable arguments to support it’s right to do business in a way that is lawful is needed here as a first step, and less pandering from politicians to the choir because they are more interested in being reelected then looking at both sides of the story or what may be best for the greater community.

I don't think you should be a predisposed liberal leaning anti business islander who thinks it fashionable to knee-jerkily jump on the nearest political feel good anti business pumpkin wagon that happens to come down the pike. Just because it's popular amongst a group of people who generally admire iconoclasts and those who question authority.

In the spirit of full disclosure my brother is 1st District’s State Representative Al O’Brien and the opinions expressed here are entirely mine alone. Daniel O'Brien


  1. I have family that own water front property on Gold Beach and they have a direct view of Glacier's activities. So I maybe bias but I have to say you bring up some very logical arguments to this 'emotional' issue for the Islanders.

  2. For nearly 30 years, i have been involved in the human rights side of massive mining operations and the toll paid by those displaced by resource extraction, including forced relocation of thousands of traditional Navajo and Hopis, uranium tailings contamination of entire communities, aquifer depletion due to a coal slurry draining ancient springs and wells in the high desert of Arizona, lies told to those most impacted by this form of short sighted mega profit and many other serious violations of land and life.

    Members of my family are third and four generation Vashon residents who are appalled by the threats posed by Glacier's massive mine. One only has to do a little accessible research to see that Glacier, among the largest gravel and sand extraction operations in the world, has a record of environmental violations in it's 100 year history. Talk to the traditional Nisqually who had no say in Glacier mining operations in a wetland no longer theirs. Those in charge are swayed by money wherever such resources are coveted.

    Multi national corporations are at the root of most wars on the planet, especially in the Congo, on Indian reservations and in other developing nations. It takes alot of effort to pay attention to the damage done by most, if not all, major resource extraction which tends to be short sighted and profit driven. Abiding by environmental standards that leave endangered species and peoples healthy and thriving is not in the best interests of greedy corporations. Just look at the hideous mess generated by Lear, Walmart, Maganavox and others who outsourced from the US to the Mexican border region where workers have no rights and there are no environmental regulations to impede insane profit.

    Humanity is at an unprecedented cross roads. Our children will be left with the most seriously damaged global environment in human history. As i write, great expanses of beach in southern California are already permanently under water. Logging stripped hills contribute to mud slides killing fish as they clog streams and rivers. People are losing homes to floods, fires and desertification at a increasingly rapid pace.

    The most silenced voices around these issues are the Indigenous peoples either long since forced out or still living in areas of final pillage. The Nisqually, Puyallup, Duwamish, Shomamish and many other coastal tribes have vested interest in the return of the Chinook and it is not in dispute that this mine will indeed contribute to the already alarming decline of the salmon, as well as the Orcas, herring and smelt. It is foolish to ignore the disappearance of our sea life which may all be eradicated in less than 40 years. We simply cannot continue this careless pursuit of comfort at the cost of all life.

    What will we do to activate solution?

    We all benefit from the products produced by these conglomerates, no argument there. The question is how willing are we to change our lifestyles for the sake of our children and generations to come? To carry out the monumental task of what WE ALL must do will require reclaiming village and community. Can we do it? Will we be wise in our witnessing of what we all face? I am committed to doing all in my power to participate in actions that benefit all of us in the larger context of a livable planet.


  3. Why is it that Glacier can repair and extend their dock when Vashon/Maury Island waterfront residents can't? Why is it that Glacier can affect eel grass and shorelines and waterfront homeowners can't build bulkheads to protect their homes? Why is it that big business/$$ can do what the law says the waterfront homeowner cannot? That is injustice. That is inequality. That is money talking!