Neighbors, Friends warn of ‘disaster waiting to happen’ at Washougal Pit

Mining permit for Washougal gravel pit in National Scenic Area calls for 340 truck trips, six days a week

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A sign shows the original date, July 9, of the public hearing for the Washougal Pit's permit application. That hearing has been postponed, but public comments are due Thursday, July 16. (Contributed photos courtesy of Rachel Grice)

It has been more than two years since a group of Washougal residents living near the sand and gravel operation known as the “Washougal Pit” joined together to voice alarm over unpermitted mining in the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.

“We have spent countless hours reporting violations, attending hearings and pleading with Clark County and the (Gorge Commission) to enforce the stop-work order given at least two years ago but never enforced,” Rachel Grice, one of those Washougal residents, recently wrote in a letter to other neighbors living near the gravel pit located off Southeast 356th Avenue in Washougal.

Grice wants others in the community to know the public comment period for the Washougal Pit’s latest permit application — which would continue mining operations and lead to gravel-hauling trucks going to and from the pit 340 times a day — closes this week on Thursday, July 16.

The Washougal Pit, owned by Judith Zimmerly, of Ridgefield, and currently being mined by the Vancouver-based Nutter Corporation, has long been a source of controversy to nearby neighbors and the Friends of the Columbia Gorge environmental stewardship group.

In the 1990s, the Washington Department of Ecology fined the pit’s owners and operators close to $200,000 after the mine’s settling ponds overflowed, dumping millions of gallons of sediment-laden runoff into the environmentally sensitive Gibbons Creek and Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Nathan Baker, the Friends’ senior attorney, called that incident “a major environmental disaster,” and said operations at the Washougal mine died down after that.

“There were probably five companies that leased (the mine) between 1997 and 2017, but most didn’t do any mining,” Baker told the Post-Record in 2018.

The Nutter Corporation took over the lease in 2017 and the mining restarted.

Immediately, Washougal neighbors and the Friends group became concerned by what they said were at least 200 trucks per day, kicking up gravel and dust and making plenty of noise as they drove away from the mine all day and evening, heading down Southeast 356th Avenue onto Evergreen Highway.

In July 2018, one of those trucks — packed down with rocks and gravel — lost control of its brakes going down Southeast 356th Avenue and crashed onto railroad tracks across Evergreen Highway.

By that point, however, Baker said, the mine’s owners and operators had already violated four county notifications telling them they were illegally mining at site.

In August 2019, the Columbia River Gorge Commission voted 10-1 to reverse an August 2018 decision by Clark County Hearings Examiner Joe Turner that allowed mining at the Washougal Pit.

Grice and other neighbors say they believe, based on the truck traffic and equipment they’ve seen going past their own houses, that the mining never stopped.

“We’ve gone to court. We’ve gone before the public hearings examiner. We’ve gone to the Gorge Commission … but (the Washougal Pit’s owners and operators) have never abided by what they’ve been told,” Grice recently told the Post-Record. “We still see trucks going up and down the road.”

Now, the mine’s owners and operators have applied for a new permit.

Their intention, according to the more than 200-page permit application, is to operate the mine from 6 a.m. to 6 p.mMonday through Friday and again from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. If approved, the mine would have 170 trucks hauling crushed rock out of the mine and coming back for another load, six days a week.

“Their request is daunting,” Grice said. “Having endured this level of level of activity during the summer of 2018, our family can attest to the highly disruptive side-effect of noise, dust, traffic and safety to the Washougal community.”

In a letter sent in early June to 10 Washougal neighbors involved in efforts to halt the unpermitted mining and rock-crushing operations, as well as the Friends of the Gorge and other interested parties, Baker, the Friends of the Gorge attorney, stated that he and Gary Kahn, the attorney representing the Washougal residents, had recently sent a complaint letter to the Gorge Commission and Clark County “regarding the ongoing violations” at the Washougal Pit.

“We have once again asked (the Gorge Commission and county officials) to initiate new enforcement proceedings and issue new stop-work orders,” Baker stated.

Baker and Kahn told the Gorge Commission and county officials in their letter that “despite the absence of any land-use permit authorizing mining activities, the unpermitted hauling of mined fill (rock and earth materials) on and across these parcels continues.”

The lawyers have asked the county and Gorge Commission to enforce their own rules against unpermitted mining operations.

“These unpermitted hauling activities constitute safety hazards for local residents and area traffic (vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists). For example, in July 2018, a fully loaded gravel truck lost control of its brakes while hauling across a private, internal access road at the unpermitted mine (at Southeast 356th Avenue), sped across a public road (Southeast Evergreen Highway), and crashed into the BNSF rail line at more than 60 miles per hour, destroying the train tracks and blocking train traffic for more than 12 hours,” Baker and Kahn stated in the June 5 letter sent to the Gorge Commission and Clark County officials. “It was a miracle that nobody was seriously injured in that incident. Similar safety threats are posed each and every day that the unpermitted mining activities (loading, hauling and transportation of mined materials) continue. In addition, the fully loaded gravel trucks routinely spill dust and debris on neighboring properties, generate excessive noise in violation of applicable decibel limits, and damage local roads.

Baker and Kahn urged county officials and Gorge Commission members to investigate the unpermitted activities at the gravel pit, resolve the alleged violations and “bear in mind the consistent history of noncompliance on the property.”

“In short, the landowners and operators have a long history of flouting land-use requirements on this property,” Baker and Kahn stated in the letter.

Washougal Pit operator: ‘County desperately needs aggegate’

In their permit application, Nutter and Zimmerly contend that mining is allowable at the Washougal Pit and say mining, processing (including rock crushing) and hauling of materials has been occurring on the property since 2017.

They have requested an after-the-fact review and National Scenic Area approval for those mining activities to continue.

“The Washougal Pit is one of the only reliable and readily available sources of aggregate within Clark County,” lawyers for Nutter and Zimmerly state in the permit application. “Due to the ongoing aggregate shortage crisis, (Nutter) expects that loading and hauling will need to occur outside of normal hours of operation … The ongoing aggregate shortage facing Clark County constitutes an emergency, as the County desperately needs this aggregate for public and private infrastructure projects. Without the aggregate provided by the Washougal Pit, infrastructure and development projects will be delayed. This will further exacerbate the affordable housing shortage facing … and delay the County’s attempts to refresh its aging transportation infrastructure and facilities.”

The application states that the total number of daily rock hauling trips to and from the site will be about 340, with 170 inbound trucks and 170 outbound trucks. During peak hours — from 3:40 to 4:40 p.m. and 7 to 8 a.m., the mine’s owners/operators expect there will be 42 trips on the weekdays and 25 trips on the weekends, with most of that traffic coming from trucks hauling or picking up the crushed gravel.

‘A disaster waiting to happen’

Grice said the “additional craziness” of the restoration work at the nearby Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, which will lead to intermittent lane closures on state Route 14 (Highway 14) through the end of September, will “add to the chaos and danger of this volume of traffic.”

She and other neighbors also worry about the impacts to students, families and staff who need to use Evergreen Highway to access nearby schools, including Columbia River Gorge Elementary and Jemtegaard Middle.

“What’s going to happen with the Steigerwald project, when Highway 14 closes and Evergreen is our only route?” Grice asked. “There will be school traffic and kids walking down that road, teen drivers … then add gravel trucks and the noise and dust and all of it. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

The county was set to hold a public hearing on the Washougal Pit’s permit application July 9, but that date has been postponed.

Public comments on the permit application may be submitted at any time until the not-yet-scheduled public hearing. Comments should be submitted via email to Richard Daviau at richard.dav Those commenting must include their mailing address in the email.