The approval comes with a 10-year agreement by JL Storedahl & Sons to not expand mining operations for at least ten years
CLARK COUNTY — A controversial request to expand a mining overlay to land south of the Yacolt Mountain Quarry was approved by the Clark County Council on Tuesday. The vote goes against a recommendation from the county’s Planning Commission, who voted 5-2 to deny the request by the mine’s operator, JL Storedahl & Sons.
“Whatever decision we make today will have no impact on existing operations,” said councilor John Blom before voting yes. “If we deny the overlay, it’s not going to make anything any better for any of the residents, and if we expand the overlay it is not, in this decision, going to have any impact to the negative.”
Council had delayed a vote after a previous hearing two weeks ago. In the meantime they asked Deputy District Attorney Christine Cook to work with Storedahl on an agreement that would ban new mining operations on the land for the next decade.
“During that time period, Storedahl has agreed to only use the property noted on the map for the storage of excavated material,” Cook told the council.
“This is a covenant that runs with the land,” noted incoming council chair Eileen Quiring, “so even if Storedahl were to sell this land, for ten years this is a covenant that runs with the land.”
The hearing two weeks ago lasted nearly three hours as over two dozen people testified. On Tuesday many reiterated long-running complaints neighbors near the mine have had regarding massive dump trucks on Kelly Road, sediment build-up in nearby streams and ponds, and potentially hazardous dust showing up at homes within several miles of the mine.
“The dangers of the steep slopes below the quarry seem to have not been taken seriously,” said Marie Ogier who lives within sight of the mining operations. “The county permitting office is well aware of the landslide potential in the area and the dangers are available online at DNR maps. Have we learned nothing from Oso, Washington where, in 2014, 43 people were buried alive in a landslide?”
Others said Storedahl had been sending mixed messages. Several people speaking in favor of expanding the overlay cited a shrinking supply of aggregate material needed in the fast-growing county.
“The idea seems to be to create the impression that, without approval, the county will run out of aggregate and development will cease,” said Richard Leeuwenburg, who is heading up the newly formed East Fork Community Coalition. “The applicant’s own testimony argues against that sense of urgency.”
Storedahl has said the land, purchased in 2016, would be used only to store overburden — soil removed in the process of mining rock that has to be kept on site for later use in reclaiming the mine after the supply of rock is exhausted.
“It brings into question why exactly they are stating that the reason this expansion is needed is that Clark County is running out of rock,” echoed Heather Tischbein, speaking on behalf of the environmental group Friends of Clark County.
Questioned on that point, Bo Storedahl said their estimate is that the existing mine contains around 70 million tons of aggregate. At current truck limits, he said, that would last up to thirty years.
Under the covenant signed as part of the agreement to expand the overlay, Storedahl, or anyone else who buys the property in the next ten years, would need to come back to the council in a public process if they wished to begin mining operations on the new land before the end of a decade.
Better enforcement needed
Before voting to approve expansion of the overlay, council members heard from Community Development Director Mitch Nickolds, who admitted that a better job needed to be done when it comes to responding to complaints and enforcing existing codes around mining sites in the county.
“Direct enforcement is something we struggle with simply because, by the time we respond to attempt to verify a particular issue, a lot of the evidence is gone,” said Nickolds, who also noted that they currently don’t have anyone working full-time in code enforcement. “That aside, we still do have that obligation, and I’m committed to ensuring that we do staff up and make sure that we have that position covered so we do have some monitoring.”
Nickolds said he would like to see the county pursue the idea of a possible fee, charged to mine operators, to help cover the hiring of someone to oversee their operations.
At a recent council time meeting, councilor John Blom raised the idea of forming a task force with the goal of overseeing complaints about mining operations. The early draft of his idea would include two mining operators, two construction industry representatives, four citizens, and county staff, meeting regularly to talk through complaints and examine what is being done to address them.
In the meantime, Nickolds promised the council that his office would find a way to better prioritize complaints surrounding mines. “We are short-handed at the moment but we’ll find a way to respond as quickly as possible.”
“I don’t want to get into a situation where citizens have to call the mine operator, because that’s going to be a contest. And you know what kind of a contest that’s going to be,” said Councilor Jeanne Stewart. “And we’ll end up with citizens even more frustrated.”
“We hear you. We really do,” said Councilor Julie Olson. “And we’re going to continue to do, or at least do a better job than maybe we’ve done in the past, and build a better relationship, we hope, with the operator and, we hope, with the neighbors, and with the county. And we’re committed to doing that.”
The vote to approve the expansion comes at the end of Stewart’s tenure, but she wanted to make sure her fellow council members understood that it’s no longer good enough to just pay lip service to the complaints of neighbors around the county’s mining operations.
“In the sales field there’s an expression, ‘spotty past, spotless future,’” said Stewart. “Our attempts at enforcement for safety on the roads for trucks has, I believe, been spotty. We need to have it be more spotless going forward. We need to do it. Not just talk about it, not have a committee where people think that they’re getting results and no results happen. We need to actually have the results.”
Even with the county approval, Storedahl will still need to go through a permitting process before they can begin to store excess dirt on the property. That will include an Environmental Impact study.
Outgoing Council Chair Marc Boldt said he’d visited the property recently, and believes the land is safe. Quiring added that her visit to the property led her to believe Storedahl’s claims that the recent logging on that property is what has led to an increase in noise complaints from neighbors, and that piling excess dirt there could actually create a buffer to reduce the problem, and cut down on the spread of dust.
It’s small comfort to some neighbors, who believe the mine’s existence is contaminating their water, poisoning their air, and destroying their quality of life. But the county says it has a duty, under the statewide Growth Management Act, to find and responsibly harvest resources within Clark County. Their hope is that they can find a balance to make sure codes are being obeyed, and updated where they need to be.