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Washougal mining operation ruled legal

Opponents will take issue to Columbia River Gorge Commission, hope to ‘shut down’ mine

A Clark County public hearings examiner has upheld the legality of a Washougal rock mining operation Friends of the Columbia Gorge advocates have called “perhaps the largest ongoing land-use violation ever in the Columbia River Gorge.”

Now, the mine’s opponents say they’re taking the matter back to the Columbia River Gorge Commission.

“The hearings examiner’s decision puts the ball squarely in the Gorge Commission’s court,” Nathan Baker, the senior attorney for the Friends of the Columbia Gorge group, told The Post-Record last week, after Hearings Examiner Joe Turner ruled on the matter, declining to consider the Friends’ arguments, denying party status to the Friends as well as the mine’s Washougal neighbors, and stating that, while mining operations at the quarry had not violated the county’s land-use laws, the business’s recent rock-crushing activities were a violation and must cease immediately.

The rock quarry, located off Southeast 356th Avenue in Washougal and within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, is owned by Judith Zimmerly, of Ridgefield, and is currently being mined by the Vancouver-based Nutter Corporation.

In late March, the county’s code enforcement office issued a cease-and-desist order to Zimmerly and Jerry Nutter, of the Nutter Corporation, outlining violations that included the owner’s and operator’s failures to obtain site plan approval for surface mining and maintain Columbia River Gorge Commission approval for a mining operation.

Neighbors and Columbia River Gorge advocates have been trying for more than a year to get the mining operations shut down, arguing the constant truck traffic hauling mined materials away from the quarry pose serious safety and health concerns and that the mine itself poses environmental threats to the nearby Gibbons Creek and Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

“There was a major environmental disaster at this site 20 years ago,” Baker explained. “The Zimmerly family created ditches on the site, and during multiple high-rain events, the settling ponds overflowed millions of gallons of sediment-laden runoff … into Gibbons Creek and Steigerwald.”

The Washington Department of Ecology fined the mine’s owners and operators close to $200,000 for the violation, and Baker said operations at the Washougal rock quarry died down after that.

Mining operations restarted in 2017, after Nutter took over the lease.

“The second most concerning impact is the potential for another serious discharge into either Gibbons Creek or Steigerwald,” Baker said. “It’s not so much of an issue right now, but once the rain starts up again, it could be an issue.”

The Friends’ attorney said the gorge protection group also is concerned about the mine’s dust, noise and scenic impacts. The dust is so thick, Baker said, many people have thought it was a forest fire. And neighbors have reported high-decibel noise throughout the day as well as being able to see mining activities from “key viewing areas” in the national scenic area, Baker said.

Gorge Commission could ‘shut down mining immediately’

After Turner handed down his decision Aug. 7, the Friends group and Washougal residents who live near the mine shifted their focus to the Gorge Commission, which Baker said has “much stronger enforcement powers than Clark County … and can shut down the illegal mining immediately.”

Baker said Turner’s decision “effectively calls on the Commission to take enforcement action,” against the mining operations.

The Friends attorney said the Gorge Commission’s executive director, Krystyna Wolniakowski, visited the Washougal rock pit in April and, according to Zimmerly’s attorney, notified Zimmerly that the mining operation was illegal and that the quarry owner was violating Gorge Commission regulations.

“Unfortunately … Wolniakowski has declined to take enforcement action,” Baker said. “After that (April 2018) visit, there was no follow-up by the Gorge Commission, despite repeated requests from community members and (the Friends).”

Wolniakowski confirmed she had visited the site, but said she could not discuss the specifics of that visit.

The director said the Gorge Commission “must remain a neutral appellate body” in case there are appeals regarding the county’s decision.

“When a county enforces its National Scenic Area rules, the county’s decision can be appealed to the Gorge Commission,” Wolniakowski said. “The National Scenic Area Act gives persons or parties adversely affected by a county decision 30 days to appeal to the Gorge Commission. We are still within that 30-day period and thus … cannot comment further.”

Neighbor worries decision will ‘further harm community’

Sean Streeter lives next to the Washougal rock pit and has been documenting the quarry’s rock-crushing and mining activities for several months.

He said Turner’s decision that mining at the quarry was legal but rock-crushing was not won’t have too much of an impact on neighbors, who say they’re unnerved by the nearly 200 mining trucks rumbling past their homes on a daily basis, every day except Sunday, kicking up dust and gravel and causing safety hazards. On July 19, a truck driver hauling mining material away from the Washougal quarry lost brake control while crossing Evergreen Highway and crashed onto Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad tracks.

“There is a hill there, so it is inherently dangerous for trucks going downhill,” Baker told The Post-Record a day after the truck accident. “And neighbors say trucks are violating the posted 10 miles per hour speed limit.”

Streeter said he now fears the truck traffic could get even worse.

“The rock crushing activity mostly ceased in January … then, in late March/early April, they started digging and removing fill material from the pit,” Streeter said. “I do not know what their intentions are with the crushed rock they have on-site, though I do have suspicions. Zimmerly owns a chip sealing company. Chip sealing uses large volumes of finely crushed rock.”

Streeter said he believes Zimmerly and Nutter intend to operate heavy, chip-sealing machinery at the quarry site.

“I believe the rock they crushed is intended for these activities moving forward,” Streeter said. “Moving out all the fill material has resulted in new, flat areas they can erect these machines on to further their business. It’s very likely the traffic could get even worse than it is now based on these potential new activities.”

Streeter said he feared the worst after learning about Turner’s decision.

“I am concerned (Turner’s) decision on this will only further embolden Nutter and Zimmerly to pursue these activities and further harm our community,” Streeter said.

As of this paper’s print deadline, The Post-Record was unable to reach the mine’s owner, Judith Zimmerly, and Jerry Nutter, of the Nutter Corporation, had not responded to the Post-Record’s requests for comment about the mining operations, truck traffic safety issues and Clark County Hearings Examiner Joe Turner’s decision.