Nature vs. industry - Opponents of a proposed gravel mine contend that the development would damage the nearby ecosystem


Prairie habitat featuring oak woodlands and camas in bloom would be preserved next to a proposed gravel mine near Maytown.

The public has until May 18 to comment on Thurston County's environmental review of Citifor's Maytown Aggregates gravel mine project. Comments should be directed to: Thurston County Development Services, Tony Kantas, Building 1, Administration, 2000 Lakeridge Drive S.W., Olympia, WA 98502.

MAYTOWN, WA-- Can an industrial-size gravel mine exist without harm to adjacent valuable prairie, oak woodlands and wetland habitat?
The question will be answered in the years ahead, if Citifor Inc. continues with its plans.

The company owns 1,625 acres on Tilley Road that was home to an explosives manufacturing plant from 1940 to 1993.

The firm wants to carve out a 535-acre parcel of the property to mine 20 million cubic yards of gravel and recycle 100,000 tons of asphalt and concrete each year. Mining would occur on 284 acres to depths up to 100 feet and, at the end of 20 years, be reclaimed into a series of eight lakes.

To proceed, Citifor needs a special-use permit from Thurston County. The company applied for a project permit in September 2002, 13 months before the county commissioners set a moratorium on new gravel mines pending a review of county ordinances.

The site also is on the state Department of Ecology hazardous waste list, which means it must be thoroughly studied and cleaned up before mining can begin. The on-site search is for lead, arsenic and chemical residues from years of making explosives, Ecology project manager Mike Blum said.

"We've already done a fair amount of investigation," said Jay Allen, Citifor's managing agent for the property. "We're confident the site is in pretty good shape."

About 100 acres of the site was devoted to explosives manufacturing over the years, Allen said.

The spotlight started shining on the mining project after county planners put it out for public review March 26. It has drawn the attention of neighbors and environmentalists disturbed by the prospects of a large-scale mine.

"It's like our worst nightmare come true," said Laurie Batten, who lives about 650 feet from where the gravel truck weigh station would go.

"If the mine is permitted at all, smaller and shallower would be better," Blacks Hills Audubon Society's Sue Danver wrote in a letter to the county.

Endangered lands

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy are anxious to protect more than 1,000 acres of critical habitat on the site.

To the east of the proposed mine is mounded prairie land like that in the Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve, as well as oak woodlands, one of the most endangered ecosystems in the state. Home to rare plants, butterflies and the western grey squirrel, the prairies of South Sound once covered about 160,000 acres, but today they number about 3,000 acres.

To the west and south are Allen and Beaver creeks and their wetlands, home to the Oregon spotted frog and, most likely, the Olympic mud minnow, two species on the state's endangered species list.

"The project site contains fantastic natural resources, which, I believe, can't be duplicated anywhere else in the county or the region," The Nature Conservancy's Patrick Dunn said.

Armed with studies by biologists and hydrologists, Citifor's Allen is confident the adjacent land can be mined without drying up the wetlands or disturbing the pristine prairie land.

The wetlands have grown significantly since they were first mapped in the 1940s, primarily due to beaver activity, Allen said.

"We expect little to no effect on the wetlands from the mine," he said. "We're not going to be pumping water out of there."

State eyes land

Allen said the company is prepared to sell all of the prime habitat to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife once it has permits in hand to allow the mine.

The state agency has had its eyes on as much as 1,200 acres of the property since 1998 and has set aside about $7 million to purchase it, state regional habitat biologist Kelly McAllister said.

"There's still hope that we'll be able to buy the best habitat out there," McAllister said.

Prodded by state Fish and Wildlife, Citifor has agreed to expand the mine's buffer width from 30 feet to 100 feet next to the prairie, and agreed to preserve three pockets of oak woodlands that were less than the 5-acre size protected through the county's critical areas ordinance. The company also committed to extensive monitoring of the spotted frog.

Is it enough to protect the habitat and the fish and wildlife that depend on it?

"I tend to believe that we'll be able to sustain the habitat values near the mine," McAllister said.

Citifor has two goals for the property, Allen said. They are:

-Mine the gravel resources for sale in the Centralia and Olympia markets. Based on 1997 figures, the gravel is worth at least $24.6 million.

-Preserve the environmental integrity of the property.

"At the end of the day, you end up with wildlife habitat and forestland in perpetuity -- and that's the best possible outcome," Allen said.

Neighbors' concerns

But many of the neighbors to the mine are relishing the next 20 years -- before the end of the day.

The noise and air pollution from mining operations and dozens of diesel trucks entering and leaving the site will be unbearable, Batten said.

"I strongly feel that the magnitude of this project is being swept under the rug," she said.

Ivan Rogers, who lives at the entrance to the project site, worries about his water well, which is only 22 feet deep.

"What happens if our well drops or becomes unstable from contamination?" Rogers asked in a letter to county officials. He said he'd rather see the property developed into a NASCAR track.

"I think there is a better use for this property for the community and this state than a gravel pit," he said.

NASCAR officials, who want to build a racetrack in the Pacific Northwest, have looked at the site, Allen said. But there's been no follow-up contact and Citifor is moving forward with the gravel mine, Allen said.

If the mine altered water depths in nearby wells, the county would probably require Citifor to come to the well owners' aid, Allen said.

Russ Thompson, a retired farrier who lives just north of the proposed mine, said: "I don't give a damn if they take the gravel, but recycling the asphalt and concrete will be a source of constant noise. Maybe there should be a limit on their hours of operation."

The company wants permission to operate from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Other considerations

The project is about a mile south of Millersylvania State Park. State parks environmental specialist Deborah Petersen wrote a letter to the county voicing concerns about traffic, noise and air pollution from the diesel trucks serving the mine but, as with other state agencies, stopped short of opposing the project.

Blum said Citifor and Ecology should have an order signed by August that spells out a cleanup plan for the full site. So far, Ecology has determined 72 acres is free of pollution, including 49.5 acres slated for mining.

Allen said the mining will be phased in over time, starting with the properties that are free of pollution or cleaned up to Ecology's satisfaction.

The county issued what is called a mitigated determination of nonsignificance following its review of the project. That means the county believes there will be no significant damage to the environment if Citifor meets conditions the county, Ecology and other agency place on the project.

While some project critics are calling for a full-blown environmental impact statement, county planner Tony Kangas said the Citifor application already contained an analysis of the environmental impacts of the project.

"They submitted all the stuff that would be required under an EIS," he said.



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