A federal judge has thrown out a permit that would have allowed a gravel mining company to get back to work next week building a controversial 305-foot dock on Maury Island.
The metal supports had been fabricated. The contractors were on standby. And angry island neighbors were ready to chain themselves to construction cranes or block incoming barges with a rainbow-colored array of boats and kayaks.
But days before a gravel mining company was set to resume building a controversial 305-foot dock in an aquatic reserve on Maury Island, a federal judge late Thursday tossed out the company’s permits.
After 11 years of political and legal wrangling, U.S. District Court Judge Ricardo Martinez ruled the Army Corps of Engineers erred by not thoroughly assessing how noise and shading from construction and operation of the pier might harm Puget Sound’s chinook salmon and orcas, which are protected by the Endangered Species Act.
By ordering a longer, more stringent review, the judge ensured it would be at least a year, more likely several, before the project would be built — if ever.
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In so doing, both sides agreed, the judge also appears to have set the stage for stricter environmental review on future construction that affects the Sound’s sensitive nearshore environment.
It’s no longer good enough, Martinez ruled, to merely consider how building a single dock may harm the Sound. The federal government must do a better job evaluating the cumulative impact of hundreds of small changes to the region’s signature waterway.
“Which raindrop caused the flood?” Martinez wrote in his ruling. “No single project or human activity has caused depletion of the salmon runs or the near-extinction of the SR [southern resident]orca, or the general degradation of the marine environment of Puget Sound. Yet every project has the potential to incrementally increase the burden upon the species and the Sound.”
The permits would have allowed Glacier Northwest to erect a pier it planned to use to pipe fine sands over the water to barges and ship them to processing plants and concrete customers. Neighbors, complained the project would disrupt herring and harm important kelp and eelgrass beds that provide a nursery for juvenile salmon.
“I am overjoyed,” said Amy Carey, president of Preserve Our Islands, a community group created to fight the project. “We have been arguing for 10 years that they were ignoring the science and failing in their duty to protect endangered species. It’s incredibly validating to have a federal judge echo our sentiments and find in our favor on every front.”
Company spokesman Pete Stoltz said Glacier would participate in whatever additional analysis was required. But Stoltz could not mask his disappointment.
“We’ve been planning on being able to use this sand into the future,” he said. “Now we have to haul more sand with trucks. We have to go longer distances. That means more money and more impacts on everybody.”
He said the judge’s ruling could impact the way the government permits everything from seawall construction to marina work up and down Puget Sound. “There are activities conducted as part of our project that are included in basically every in-water construction project in Puget Sound,” he said.
Bridget Moran, deputy supervisor for aquatics with the Department of Natural Resources, agreed that the judge referred to the “death-by-a-thousand-cuts problem. To me that’s the message. The sum of all of our actions good or bad will decide how Puget Sound will be in the next 20, 50, or 100 years.”
Dave Mann, attorney representing residents of Maury and Vashon islands, said that is precisely why people have been fighting the project.
“I hope this signals a change in the way we’re going to approach these projects in the future,” Mann said. “The way we’ve been doing it is obviously wrong. We’ve got endangered fish, endangered whales and a troubled Sound. To my mind, this is one of the first opinions that … understands what’s at stake.”
Protest to victory party
Glacier Northwest has been planning for years to mine gravel from a 155-acre mine the company or its predecessors have owned since the 1930s. The project has been through many lengthy reviews and in and out of court for years, but the year leading up to construction of the dock had been particularly rife with turmoil.
Last year, the company gave $50,000 to a political action committee that supported former Republican State Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland’s re-election bid. Sutherland lost, but signed a lease for the project days before leaving office. His successor, Democrat Peter Goldmark, who’s campaigned on a promise to try and stop the project, immediately announced plans to more thoroughly scrutinize the lease. In early July, he ordered the company to do no work until it could prove to him Puget Sound would see no harm. Earlier this week, the company responded with a 17-page letter — and a promise that it still planned to start work next week.
Now, the project is on indefinite hold, and a protest scheduled for Saturday on Maury Island instead will become a victory party.
“It’s hard to believe that it’s actually over — at least for a year or more,” said Bill Moyer, who was organizing the protest.
Craig Welch: 206-464-2093 or firstname.lastname@example.org