Julie McDonald Commentary: Gravel Mine Questions Answered by County

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Lewis County Manager Erik Martin provided answers to questions I posed last week about the gravel mining operation on Mandy Road near Toledo that neighbors say makes their lives miserable.

The gravel mine at 451 Mandy Road has a long history with an initial surface mine reclamation permit granted in the 1990s by the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that allowed gravel mining on 20 acres and Christmas trees on the other 40.

The county never issued a permit for the mine or any expansion there because that mine operates under the regulatory authority of the DNR established prior to zoning. The county does issue permits for surface mining operations, but this one was issued by the DNR. So, the state is responsible for regulating compliance with the permit.

“In this situation, mining outside of the 20-acre pit-disturbance is considered an expansion or boundary revision by DNR and remains under their permit authority,” Martin said.

Before expanding the gravel mining operation into the floodway, DNR officials told Lemmie Rockford, owner of Eagle Cliffs Mining of Cathlamet, to consult with the county, which according to Community Development Director Lee Napier hasn’t happened. The county never greenlighted the expansion, although residents believe it did by failing to raise objections about noise, operating hours and dust and water pollution.

The pit didn’t exist in 2012 when Scott Crossfield bought his quiet home at the end of the dead-end Foster Creek Road. But that year Rockford bought the land next door from Ron Wallace and started mining gravel under the name L. Rock Industries Inc.

Commissioner Gary Stamper said he’s been working with Crossfield for years, but all the control and oversight of the mine rests with the state DNR. “We’re trying to do everything we can,” he said.

“We all appreciate the frustration,” Commissioner Lindsey Pollock said. “I’ve been out there. I would not want to live in those particular circumstances.”

In 2014, when Rockford and his general manager, John Bredfield, asked to expand the gravel pit by another 17 acres, residents objected.

“What I believe to be true is that the county has done all we can to resolve this issue and that the DNR and the property owner have not,” Martin said.

I contacted the DNR late last week to ask about the mine. I received a response that my email was forwarded to their communications folks.

The county has a noise ordinance adopted in 2019, but unfortunately, it exempts “sounds originating from agricultural operations, mining operations and forestry operations.”

Stamper said the noise ordinance exemption is designed to allow farmers to hay at night and loggers to cut trees early. 

“We get information and recommendations from the prosecutor’s office,” he said. “We didn’t do it in a vacuum. Should we have done more work on it? That’s probably a legal question.”

Pollock said she asked a deputy prosecutor what could be done to help the neighbors. 

“Unfortunately, the way the state code is written, fines max out at $100 a day, and it’s exceedingly difficult to try to prove that the violations are occurring,” she said, adding that specially trained people with specially calibrated instruments would need to visit the site daily. 

As for the neighbors, she said, “Probably the most efficient way forward for them is a civil suit.”

But Crossfield, who acknowledged that Stamper has advocated for him, said a civil suit could cost the neighbors $50,000 to $80,000. And while the mine operates under a DNR permit, the state Legislature gave counties the authority to regulate mines, he said. The county recently required a mine owner near Napavine to go through the SEPA process.

“They’re all hiding behind lawyer speak,” Crossfield said. “For me, the rational thing to do is the county should have stepped in and said we’re going to protect citizens.”

State and local officials also may be running scared.

Because of public concerns, Thurston County officials in 2011 required more extensive land-use and environmental studies that they say were missed when a gravel mining permit was issued near Maytown in 2005. The Port of Tacoma and Maytown Sand & Gravel sued and prevailed at the Washington State Supreme Court, which in August 2018 affirmed a $12 million verdict against the county.

Stamper said Lewis County has a lot of gravel pits and normally issues those permits.

Residents may yet find relief if the DNR requires the owners to complete a review under the State Environmental Policy Act, which would require public hearings where residents can voice concerns about noise, burning and dust and water pollution. State officials can require the owner to mitigate those concerns before expanding. That’s the hope, anyway.

“When I first started talking to the DNR, they indicated they weren’t going to have to do a SEPA,” Stamper said. “If it gets permitted, if it’s done the right way, that’s one thing, but cutting corners and being able to do things outside the boundaries is a little bit frustrating.”

Crossfield said requiring a SEPA is tedious and expensive for the owner, but at least it’ll give neighbors a chance to have their concerns addressed.

“My hope and prayer is that the owner will just shut it down,” he said.

He said the Portland-Vancouver area is running out of gravel, so people are looking north to mine Lewis County. He noted that additional land in the Toledo area is already zoned “mineral,” which allows gravel mines. That prompted me to pull up the county’s GIS zoning map.

“This is going to be a constant thing in the valley for somebody,” Crossfield said.

Property owners also can ask to have ag land rezoned mineral or “dual use,” which would be taken up by the county planning commission. I would hope owners would be informed if that were to happen, but we all need to be vigilant of proposed land-use changes. 

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Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.