IF THIS STORY HAD APPEARED two weeks ago, you might have thought it an April Fool's hoax. Consider: A Japanese-owned sand-and-gravel company plans (in stages)


The Pits

Maury Island has the gravel Sea-Tac's runway needs. It also has arsenic-laden soil, a vulnerable aquifer, and some very worried islanders.

IF THIS STORY HAD APPEARED two weeks ago, you might have thought it an April Fool's hoax. Consider: A Japanese-owned sand-and-gravel company plans (in stages) to strip-mine 235 acres on Maury Island, Vashon's scenic Siamese sister. It will dig up to 7.5 million tons of gravel and sand a year, perhaps 85 million tons in total. It will haul this booty off in 10,000-ton barges, hauling up to four of them a day over vulnerable, biologically precious eelgrass beds. It will supply up to 20 million tons of gravel to fill the third runway being built, over hills and dales and wetlands, at Sea-Tac Airport. The miners will dig over the aquifer that supplies all Maury Island's water, as close as 15 feet to it, and perhaps alter the hydrology of its recharge and filtration. To get at the gravel, they'll scrape off the topsoil, perhaps 50 acres at a time, then restore it as they go along. This will mean uprooting (in stages) much of what's reportedly the region's largest, healthiest grove of madrona trees, prime heron and raptor habitat. Thanks to decades of dusting by a now-defunct copper smelter, this topsoil is laced with toxic arsenic. And though the gravel site is uninhabited, desirable homes cluster along its edges.

You've gotta be kidding? Guess again. Not only is this massive exercise in pebble moving seriously proposed, it may come to pass. Gravel is big business, and a concomitant of growth; not only airports but highways, homes, and stadiums are built upon gravel and concrete made with it. Gold mining and oil drilling in the wild may present more sensational impacts. But gravel is dug from our backyards, and is drawing mounting opposition from ex-urbanites moving into places like North Bend, Granite Falls, and Duvall—other picturesque communities where pits and quarries are proposed and contested.

But unlike many pit-shocked communities, Maury Island is no stranger to gravel. This site has been mined since the 1940s; its current owner, Lone Star Northwest, acquired it about 20 years ago and last mined it heavily in 1978. Lone Star has since only dug 10,000 or so tons a year, for on-island use. The old pits have sprouted over (even some madronas have come back) and become favorite spots for beer blasts, target practice, four-wheeling, dumping old cars, hiking, and view gazing.

"We always knew this site would be needed someday," says Ron Summers, Lone Star's general manager. And so the company banked the land, and its 1970s-vintage permit for mining most of it. Summers even insists the rusted conveyor frames that climb the slope are still usable, though they look ready to collapse: "We put all the main equipment in storage." And he says "someday" has arrived: The company's other sites—in particular, its big Steilacoom mine—are getting depleted. Demand is rising, after several years with few major projects hereabouts. And the retreating glaciers just happen to have blessed Maury Island with an abundance of high-quality gravel: "It's a rare site," says Summers. "Looked at [from the view of the] regional environment, it's also a very clean site." And, he adds, "you always run into neighbor concerns," wherever you dig gravel.

PERHAPS, BUT THOSE CONCERNS seem especially acute here, thanks partly to the site's character and partly to its changing environs: Since the mining slowed, the communities of Gold Beach and Sandy Shores have grown—exploded, by Vashon standards—alongside. And though it's near neighbors who are, in usual fashion, spearheading the opposition, they've mustered wide support on both islands. They've also gotten several thousand dollars from the islands' county-supported Community Council. This has gone to pay for environmental consultants, who've already punctured some of Lone Star's data.

Lone Star first declared it would dig under its old permit. Then, last summer, the county ordered a new environmental review; islanders, acting under the moniker "Deep Impacts," have since raised many more issues, especially with regard to that perennial Vashon anxiety, water.

The ground Lone Star would tear up is a sponge and filter for the aquifer all the island wells draw from: How will that affect water quality and quantity? Then there's all that arsenic (plus cadmium and lead) spewed by the old Asarco smelter near Tacoma. Arsenic fallout ordinarily bonds to the top few inches of soil, rather than leaching down. But will tossing and turning that soil release it into the water column? "First, they'll change the hydrology," says Sharon Nelson, Deep Impacts' chair. "We won't have the filtration anymore. [Then they'll] break the arsenic's bond with the soil and put it back over our water system." And even though no health damage has been proven from Maury's and south Vashon's long arsenic dusting, and state rules dictate how such contaminated soils must be handled to prevent new dusting, islanders fear that they'll get stirred up again.

They claim that those heavy barges will scrape up inshore eelgrass beds that are vital (and increasingly scarce) nurseries for herring, young chinook salmon, and other fish. They warn that heavy digging could cause more landslides (another perennial terror on Vashon) like those on the property's south edge.

Lone Star manager Summers argues that mining may reduce slide danger, by removing dirt behind the shore bluff. But on most site and environmental questions he defers to the draft Environmental Impact Study due in May. "I trust the [county's] consultant, that they're going to come up with the data."

TRUST IS A STICKing POINT for the islanders. They've made hay of Lone Star's pollution record: In 1988, a US magistrate fined it for dumping cement residues into Lake Union and the Duwamish River. That was then, says Summers: "We learned from those cases, how to do our job better and be more attentive to impacts like that." Yes, but just last month an Oregon grand jury found that Lone Star had again dumped cement into a waterway, in Oregon City in 1997. "That was done without approval," says Summers, by persons unconnected to the Maury project. "When we found out we turned ourselves in. Disciplinary action was taken." Indeed, the Oregonian reports that Lone Star fired or suspended five employees involved in the incident and offered to pay fines and restitution rather than go to court.

The islanders also decry the fact that Jones & Stokes, the consultant King County hired for the EIS, hired Lone Star's consultant to perform geologic and hydrological studies. County project manager Gordon Thomson says such a move is "neither usual nor unusual," and not a conflict of interest: It's just "the most effective way to get the data. The geotech people say for data collection, the technology is the same whoever does it."

Nevertheless, the islanders have asked permission to double-check—to take their own groundwater samples in tandem with Lone Star's consultant. Lone Star refuses because, Summers avows, double-checking is "unnecessary": "We feel there's plenty of information already. The data's the data."

Not if you judge by the dueling arsenic readings the two parties turned up. In that case, the Community Council's and Lone Star's consultants shared and tested the same samples. In eight out of 10 samples, the islanders' lab found more arsenic (sometimes much more) than the company's did.

A third expert determined that the Vashonites' tester used the proper technique, screening the samples first; Lone Star's didn't. Steve Hall, Jones & Stokes' project manager for the Maury EIS, disputes "the analogy that if they hadn't done parallel testing, the data would be wrong. We would have discovered the error anyway. And the conclusion would have been the same [regardless]: The soils have elevated levels of arsenic and will have to be managed under the Model Toxic Control Act."

Hall says he "doesn't care if they test the groundwater, too," but again thinks double-checking isn't necessary. Maybe not—unless the gravel miners and regulators who live off the island care to calm the worries of those who live on it. Meanwhile, the residents will ratchet up their opposition with a colorful "Hands Across Maury" event on April 25, near the site.

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