Comments sought on mining plan near East Fork of the Lewis River

Monday, December 2, 2002
By KATHIE DURBIN, Columbian staff writer

The federal government is inviting public comment on a gravel mining company's long-awaited draft proposal to expand mining operations to 161 acres near the East Fork of the Lewis River.

The $11.5 million plan commits Kelso-based J. L. Storedahl Co. to several measures designed to protect threatened salmon and steelhead habitat in the East Fork while it proceeds with mining and reclamation over the next 15 years. Among them:

* Improving the process for treating the water used to wash gravel by creating a "closed-loop system" that would contain all wastewater in a series of settling ponds, keeping it out of the East Fork and its tributaries.

* Maintaining dikes and other barriers to keep the East Fork from shifting course and migrating into the new gravel pits, as it did in the 1996 floods when it was captured by existing gravel pits downstream from Daybreak Park.

* Restoring Dean Creek, a small creek that flows off the property.

* Creating new wetlands and wooded areas by partially filling and reshaping some of the existing gravel pits near the river and some of the new pits that would be excavated as part of the resumed mining.

* Establishing a $1 million endowment fund to pay for monitoring and maintenance of the site in perpetuity after mining and reclamation are completed in about 15 years.

Storedahl officials have approached both the Columbia Land Trust and Ducks Unlimited about managing the property over the long term, said Storedahl spokeswoman Ann Rivers.

"We're excited about this habitat conservation plan because we've been making promises all along and now they have been committed to writing," Rivers said. "We have put ourselves in the hands of the toughest regulators in the world. Many people in our industry think we are just nuts to do this. We didn't have to do a (habitat conservation plan)."

Without such a plan, Storedahl could proceed with mining, but it would risk running afoul of the Endangered Species Act and being cited for illegal "take" or harm of the East Fork's prized wild salmon and steelhead runs.

Taking a risk

"They could roll the dice and risk a take violation, which would be difficult to prove," said Tim Romanski of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the agency that has worked most closely with Storedahl on development of the habitat plan.

With an approved plan, he said, federal agencies don't have to prove actual harm to salmon. "We just have to prove the plan is not being implemented."

Baz Stevens, vice president of the nonprofit group Friends of the East Fork, said the plan appears impressive but left him unimpressed. His group, which is working to restore the river, has fought resumption of gravel mining at the Daybreak site every step of the way.

"I think (Kimball) Storedahl sees big dollar signs; therefore, he's willing to spend big dollars to put out a thousand-page habitat conservation plan," Stevens said. "He's put a lot of good minds to the task of trying to make this unmitigable project mitigable."

Earlier this year, Friends sued Storedahl under the Clean Water Act, alleging thousands of violations of the act over the past five years. Company vice president Kimball Storedahl has denied any water quality violations.

Stevens likened the Storedahl plan to that of a plastic surgeon who wants to rent out someone's body, rearrange organs and blood vessels, then put everything back together as well as possible at the end of 15 years.

"They are doing everything they possibly can to make this work, but it can't work; it's not the right place," he said.

The habitat plan and an accompanying draft environmental impact statement, paid for by Storedahl, were published in the Federal Register last week and will be available for public comment until Jan. 21, 2003.

Storedahl has spent three years and well over $1 million developing the plan. If approved, it would permit the company to "take" or harm federally listed steelhead, bull trout, chum salmon and chinook salmon in the East Fork during gravel mining as long as the long-term survival of the species is not compromised.

Under a controversial "no surprises" provision of the federal Endangered Species Act, an approved habitat plan would shield Storedahl from future restrictions on its operations for 25 years even if additional species are listed or new information surfaces on the impact of its operations.

A legacy of mining

Storedahl and other parties, including Clark County, have mined gravel near the East Fork for more than 30 years, with dramatic effects on the stretch of river downstream from Daybreak Park. Much of that section is now shallow and silty, with summer water temperatures that can be lethal to fish.

No mining has occurred at Storedahl's Daybreak site since 1995. Instead, Storedahl has been hauling gravel from the nearby Tebo pit and crushing it at its site. In February 2001, under pressure from Friends of the East Fork, Clark County ordered the company to stop gravel-washing and crushing operations at the site until it obtained a state shoreline permit.

If its habitat plan wins the federal stamp of approval, Storedahl -- already Clark County's largest supplier of gravel for road construction -- hopes to mine 4,000 tons of gravel daily at the Daybreak site.

The project would generate plenty of noise and increased truck traffic in the rural area. After reclamation, the site would be a patchwork of forests, wetlands and open water, with plantings of native vegetation.

The plan ran into early opposition when Lee Van Tussenbrook of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife warned in a January 2000 letter to federal fish agencies that the damage to fisheries caused by a resumption of gravel mining could not be mitigated. Tussenbrook said the excavation, riprapping, diking and processing associated with gravel mining are "not compatible with long-term goals for management of naturally functioning river systems."

Endangered river

In 2001, the Federation of Fly Fishers, an international group, named the threatened wild steelhead run on the East Fork one of the nation's four most endangered fisheries, citing habitat damage caused by past gravel mining and the prospect that mining would resume.

That same year, the environmental group American Rivers listed the East Fork as one of the nation's dozen most-endangered rivers due to the threat posed by renewed gravel mining.

But the company's team of consultants pushed ahead, addressing many of the criticisms in later revisions of the plan.

If its preferred plan is not approved, the company says it will consider implementing a less ambitious habitat plan, proceeding to mine without a habitat plan, or subdividing the property into 20-acre agricultural or residential lots. The area is currently zoned for agriculture with a minimum lot size of 20 acres.

Stevens said residential development of 20-acre lots would have far less impact on the river than gravel mining. In fact, he said Friends of the East Fork is willing to help make that happen by finding Storedahl a buyer for the 161-acre parcel.

"What we're hoping for is to try to help Storedahl see that this is not the right place for that project," he said.

If you want to comment

* Comments and requests for documents related to the Storedahl gravel mining proposal may be addressed to Tim Romanski, Storedahl DEIS Comments, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 510 Desmond Drive S.E., Suite 102, Lacey, WA 98503-1263, or by phone at 360-753-5823.

* On the Web:


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