Owner of gravel pit fights closure order

Saturday, January 18, 2003
By ERIK ROBINSON, Columbian staff writer

AMBOY, WA- The operator of a half-century-old gravel pit in north Clark County is vowing to fight a state order shutting him down for lack of a formal reclamation plan.

Willis "Lucky" Waldow said that he prepared plenty of paperwork a decade ago to show how the pit will be returned to its natural state, and he's not about to do it over again.

"I'm not in the wrong," he said.

Waldow, 77, said he's up to date with myriad state and federal permits related to his mining operation, and he sees no need to jump through more hoops. After two years of wrangling with Waldow, the state Department of Natural Resources ordered the pit closed earlier this month.

Waldow contends the Courtney mine, in operation since the 1950s, should be allowed to operate as it has in the past.

He maintains that he spent $16,000 to hire a consultant in 1993 to secure an operating permit from the DNR. He said when he asked Clark County planners to sign off on the state permit application in May 1993 almost two months before the state enacted a new, more stringent mining law county officials told him he wouldn't need any new approvals.

At that point, the matter faded into the background.

Two years ago, state officials received complaints that Waldow was operating without a DNR-approved reclamation plan for the pit, owned by Amboy-area resident James Courtney and leased by Waldow's North Clark Construction Co. DNR southwest district geologist Brad Campbell said the complaints came from "people in the mining community that do operate legally," though he wouldn't name them.

State officials ordered Waldow to submit a restoration plan once the pit is mined out, which he expects won't happen for another 10 years.

Waldow said his old environmental consultant never submitted a final reclamation plan to the DNR because he believed none was necessary. The consultant has since gone out of business and moved on, and Waldow said he didn't keep the reclamation documents partly because he's been focused on dealing with health problems involving his wife, Esther.

"Now, they want us to start all over," Waldow said. "That would take forever, and we would lose our grandfather rights."

The pit is roughly 12 acres in size, with rock walls rising 90 feet at its northwest corner.

Once the pit is mined out, Waldow said he intends to contour the edges with a series of terraced walls rising no higher than 30 feet each. Others have raised the possibility of converting the pit into a future water-storage reservoir.

Meanwhile, an environmental consultant and longtime Waldow family friend has agreed to draw up a reclamation plan on a pro bono basis.

Bev Becker, who now lives in Idaho, sees the matter as a minor foul-up that has festered to the point where Waldow has had to lay off a dozen or so workers. Waldow himself faces the threat of civil penalties if he doesn't submit a reclamation plan by Feb. 21.

Becker believes the matter can be resolved to everyone's satisfaction.

"The county doesn't really want to shut him down," Becker said. "And Lucky just wants to be operating."

Clark County officials have already found Waldow's mine to be a "legally nonconforming" use, meaning the pit predates a 1974 change in county code that would have blocked the establishment of a new mine in the area. But, even though county officials have no right to shut down Waldow's operation, county attorney Rich Lowry said they have to ensure Waldow's operation complies with modern codes.

The 110-acre property covers steep slopes, a small unnamed creek and a wetland area, each of which could require wide setbacks from Waldow's ever-expanding pit.

But the county must walk a fine line.

While the county has an obligation to make sure everyone plays by the same set of rules, it has to recognize Waldow's grandfathered right to operate. The enforcement, then, can't be so expensive or onerous that it drives Waldow out of business.

"If the practical effect of applying the regulation is to shut him down, then that may be no different than a regulation that tells him he can't operate," Lowry said.

Jim Malinowski, who lives across Northeast Amboy Road and whose father, Henry, started the pit, said the matter never should have come to this point. Malinowski's own fish-recovery organization, Fish First, is relying on Waldow to continue to supply large boulders for stream habitat improvements.

"We're going to put on a full-court press to get that pit reopened," Malinowski said.


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