Environmental issues on Maury Island
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The environmental issues on Maury Island are linked to broader Puget Sound environmental issues, which include concerns regarding declining salmon and forage fish populations, degrading critical marine and shoreline habitats, and threatened species such as the Orca.
Many of these concerns are centered on the proposed expansion of the a gravel site owned by Glacier Northwest.
- 1 Gravel mining on Maury Island
- 2 Mining expansion via barges on Maury Island
- 3 Aquatic reserve
- 4 Oil spills
- 5 Glacier Northwest's EIS
- 6 Possible advantages and disadvantages of the Glacier Northwest Gravel Pit
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
Gravel mining on Maury Island
The primary environmental issue on Maury Island is Glacier Northwest's proposal to expand its gravel mine, located in the southern part of the island. Glacier Northwest has operated the mine on the island since the 1940s, but in 1998 it announced its proposal to expand the operation to approximately 7.5 million tons of gravel a year. According to Glacier Northwest senior executives in a presentation at the University of Washington in April 2005, the expansion of its South Maury Island mine is in the interest of the Pacific Northwest as a whole. They claim Washington uses approximately 75 million tons of gravel and sand per year; seven tons per person, per year. The Seattle/Tacoma area uses 48% of all sand and gravel, making the South Maury Island site centrally located for supplying this demand. They estimate economic growth in the Puget Sound region between 2000-2020 will require an additional 22 million tons of gravel per year. They claim that Washington, and particularly the Seattle/Tacoma area, may benefit from an expansion of local sand and gravel mines. There is also potential for the construction of a third runway at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport that would require large quantities of sand and gravel. Many people believe that South Maury Island is one of the most sensitive places to mine due to the amount of wildlife the area supports; however, Glacier Northwest claims that mining on the island and barging the gravel off the site will have fewer environmental impacts than would mining somewhere else and transporting the gravel by truck. Grassroots efforts and litigation have managed to postpone the proposed expansion yet[when?].
Preserve Our Islands (POI) is a volunteer, non-profit organization committed to preserving all aspects of life and the environment on Vashon Island and Maury Island, and is opposed to Glacier Northwest's proposal to expand its gravel mine. According to Glacier Northwest's website, it is the largest supplier of aggregate in the Pacific Northwest, creating a need for it to continuously extract aggregate so that it can remain the largest supplier. POI claims that if Glacier Northwest continues to expand, nearly ten percent of Maury Island will be affected. They also argue that the near shore location of the gravel pit will endanger the eelgrass habitat, which is vital for salmon to spawn. POI also argues that toxins will contaminate the island's only source of drinking water and will affect the residents as well. It hopes that its grassroots efforts will stop Glacier Northwest's expansion.
Glacier Northwest's proposed mining expansion has stirred response in the government. U.S. Senator Patty Murray, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, has pushed measures for economic development and environmental and public safety initiatives throughout Washington, one of which concerns the conservation of Maury Island. Providing approximately $2 million, this bill would contribute to the goal of local organizations, such as POI, of preserving the threatened 250 acres (1 km²) that are home to the state’s largest Madrona forests, as well as its shoreline habitats. By incorporating funds from local, state, and private sources, this bill would promote responsible, cost efficient local stewardship.
Among the key figures in the conflict is former Washington Governor Booth Gardner, also a member of Preserve Our Islands. In a presentation given at the University of Washington for the Society and Oceans course 103 on April 26, 2005, Gardner expressed his support for POI and his personal philosophy on understanding both sides of the South Maury Island/Glacier Northwest mining issue and acknowledging the importance of one’s personal view and the opponent’s stance. While he has expressed hopes of the community purchasing the land from Glacier Northwest in order to stop the expansion, he does recognize the relevance of compromise and the reality of the situation. Gardner was joined by King County Council member Dow Constantine, who has strongly advocated the protection of salmon, expressing the possible negative impacts Glacier Northwest’s expansion could have on the threatened species. In his view, putting the salmon in further danger would be a step backwards in the policies and funds currently implemented for protection.
Gravel mining by Glacier Northwest on Maury Island does have some advantages. Glacier Northwest is a large company with twelve sites, other than south Maury Island, from which aggregates are mined in Washington and Oregon. Actively mining the Maury Island site would provide a small number of jobs for people on the island and in surrounding areas, while its operations are estimated to continue for the next 20 to 30 years, depending on business and demand. Additionally, the aggregate resources do not produce much waste material when mined, and are therefore beneficial and cost effective for the region. The sand, gravel, and quarry rock from the Maury Island site would be distributed throughout the Pacific Northwest region to be used for building roadways and houses, creating concrete, and making other products such as roof tiles and cement blocks.
Studies over the past 30 years have shown that the soil in some areas of Vashon-Maury Island has elevated concentrations of arsenic, lead, and cadmium, probably due to decades of copper smelting operations in Ruston, Washington, located just south of the southern tip of Vashon Island. When examined by area, the data indicates the most serious arsenic contamination is in South Vashon-Maury Island. At a public meeting in February 1999, following the public disclosure of elevated levels on the Lone Star Northwest Gravel Mine (now Glacier Northwest) site, the community raised new questions about the level of arsenic contamination for Vashon-Maury Island as a whole.
One risk associated with Glacier Northwest’s plan for expansion involves amassing thousands of tons of arsenic-contaminated soil into a large, plastic container. Due to decades of downwind fallout from the ASARCO copper smelter near Tacoma, the top layer of earth on Maury Island is laden with toxins, including arsenic, which was found in concentrations nearly double those requiring industrial cleanup and 20 times those of residential standards. Glacier Northwest plans to bulldoze the top 18 inches of soil and store it in an enormous berm, which would store large amounts of hazardous wastes for 50–75 years. Glacier Northwest offers no plan for managing the toxins after that time. If the permit is issued and the company is allowed to mine at the proposed rate, it is foreseeable that the corporation will have exhausted the site and moved on long before necessary measures are taken to proper dispose of the toxic waste.[original research?]
Should the berm rupture, if disturbed by something such as an earthquake, the mass of toxic soil would flow downhill into Puget Sound, where it would devastate not only the physical environment, but also the populations living there. Fish, birds and marine mammals would be exposed to extreme levels of the deadly contaminants, which bio-accumulate up the food chain. Sea birds often die after eating arsenic-tainted fish, which would prove disastrous on Maury Island as its Quartermaster Harbor has been identified by the Washington Department of Natural Resources as “an important area for marine birds.”
Exposure to arsenic can cause health effects, such as gastrointestinal disturbances, abnormal heart rhythm, and blood vessel damage in the short term and skin, bladder, kidney, liver, and lung cancers in the long term.
Madrone tree stand habitat
Another concern in the debate is the disruption of the Madrone tree stand habitat, located in the area of the proposed expansion. Glacier Northwest has acknowledged that it will occupy the stand, but stresses that restoration of the habitat will be a continually occurring process. Nevertheless, the concern for irreversible damage to one of the largest Madrone forests in the United States still exists. Madrone trees protect against soil erosion with wide roots, which anchor the soil, and their leaves, which protect soil from the rain. The forest also provides nesting areas and food for numerous birds, ranging from the chestnut-backed chickadee to the bald eagle. If Glacier Northwest were allowed to conduct their proposed expansive mining operation on Maury Island, then approximately 235 acres (0.95 km²) of Pacific Madrone, or Arbutus menziesii, could be deforested. Glacier Northwest plans to take steps to mitigate the deforestation of the area, which includes transplanting saplings after the various stages of mining has commenced; however, the success rate of Madrone trees surviving transplantation would be low, according to the Holden Arboretum. The University of Washington’s Botany Department has confirmed that Madrone trees have high rates of germination and emergence, yet seedling survival is poor on most sites; approximately 90 to 100% of seedlings die within the first year. Such a low survival rate will cause the forest to become reestablished in approximately 20 years, as reported by the official environmental impact statement.
An issue that the residents of South Maury Island face as a result of the proposed expansions of the Glacier Northwest gravel mine is a possible threat to the residents' drinking water supply. The aquifer on South Maury Island relies on rainwater to sustain it. The rainwater is absorbed by the ground and is filtered through hundreds of feet of soil to a layer of permeable rock that holds the water. According to the EPA, the aquifer supplies 71% of the drinking water for island residents, making it the primary source of drinking water on the island, and making contamination of the aquifer system a significant hazard to public health. If the supply were to be contaminated, no reasonably available alternative source of drinking water could replace the aquifer system. According to POI, it is proposed that Glacier Northwest would mine to within 15 feet of the aquifer. This could lead to possible disruptions and contamination of the aquifer flow and recharge capabilities.
Mining expansion via barges on Maury Island
Glacier Northwest plans mainly on using barges, supported and supplemented by a new dock system - which they have yet to gain permission to construct (Preserve Our Islands, April 26) - to transport the mined aggregate off the island. The company asserts that their reasons for using barge transportation are based on environmental and economic principles, including avoiding the costs and environmental effects of constructing main roads on which the aggregate would be transported. The economic viability of this strategy is clear; one barge of aggregate is equal to approximately 115 trucks (Ron Summers, April 25), but both the use of the barge and construction of a new dock have other consequences as well (see below). Glacier Northwest is hoping to mine and remove 85 million tons of sand and gravel from the island using the barges, which could result in the loss of 8% of the island's land mass, leading to serious effects on the islands near shore habitats, water supply, and the chemical composition of the soil.
Environmental effects of barge usage
As Glacier Northwest claims that the usage of barges is not detrimental to the environment, those against the mine expansion, especially those from Preserve Our Island, disagree. They claim that the physical effects of the barge itself, and the side-effects of its loading procedures, can be detrimental to the near shore environment. It is estimated that the velocity of the prop wash from these barges can re-suspend about 90% of the ambient bed material in the shallow waters. This effect, contrary to Glacier Northwest's attempt at mitigation, would not be avoided even if the dock and loading site were extended into deeper waters as planned because of the likely possibility of aggregate falling over the side of the barge into the sound. The effect of this spillage could then raise the ambient bed as it is collected on the ocean floor, exposing it to the dangers of the barge's prop-wash. These effects would pose a more significant effect during low tides, as outlined in the continuing section on the remaining eelgrass beds. By using barge ships as their main form of transport, Glacier Northwest is also putting South Maury Island’s fragile habitat at an extremely high risk for oil spills. An oil spill would demolish the near shore habitat, which would affect the fish, birds, and sea mammals living throughout the Puget Sound.
Remaining eelgrass beds
One of the most prevalent issues on South Maury Island is the destruction of eelgrass beds with the proposed expansion by Glacier Northwest. Part of the allure of the Maury Island location is the site's proximity to the Puget Sound waterway. Glacier Northwest ships gravel by truck and by barge, but shipping gravel by barge is cheaper than by truck, so the gravel mine will use a dock (Glacier Northwest). The existing dock on the eastern shore is "dilapidated" (Preserve Our Islands-Eelgrass). Glacier Northwest has agreed to expand this dock to distances that reduce the risk of damaging the local habitat, yet many concerns still remain, including the potential damage to the local eelgrass habitat, a vital part of the salmon’s livelihood. According to Dr. David Jay's Propeller Wash Analysis Study of 2002, expanding the dock out as Glacier Northwest has proposed will not significantly reduce this risk (Preserve Our Islands-Eelgrass). The construction of the dock could also stand to disturb the habitat.
Eelgrass not only provides food for juvenile salmon but is also provides sediment control. This protection helps preserve the highly productive bacteria in the sediments that nourish large amounts of invertebrates. Eelgrass meadows cushion the impact of waves and currents, preventing erosion. The eelgrass also serves a vital role in the lives of hundreds of other species including chum, herring, and crab. The Quartermaster Harbor herring stock is currently the largest spawning population in southern Puget Sound, and the third largest in the entire Puget Sound region. The state of Washington has already lost nearly 33% of its eelgrass population (www.preserveourisland.org). The expansion of Glacier Northwest and its proposed dock would destroy even more of the crucial eelgrass populations. The spillage from the sight and towboat propellers would erode the eelgrass especially from May toJuly, when the tide is the lowest, which is also the most important growth period for eelgrass. Although Glacier intends to replace the eelgrass somewhere else on the island, there is a great chance that it would not be successful because of eelgrass's sensitivity, which causes eelgrass replacement projects to have a low success rate.
One of the major issues currently under debate between Preserve Our Islands and Glacier Northwest is the construction of a new dock over the old one. The old dock, however, was constructed using creosote to preserve the wooden pilings. Creosote is a type of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, which is detrimental to many types of marine life, and the removal of the old dock might leave some creosote residue behind. Herring eggs, which are often placed on pilings, die if the piling they are on is coated with creosote. It is cancerous to any marine life living near it, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency|EPA declared that any creosote spills over one gallon must be reported. Part of the current mandate for construction calls for heavy sampling to ensure that no creosote is left after the new dock is in place. Glacier Northwest is currently arguing this issue in court.
Salmon and the nearshore area
The well-being of the near-shore area around South Maury Island is another concern. Eelgrass (Zosetra Marina) is a habitat that protects developing anadromous fish, such as salmon, by providing cover from predation and food, which supports the growth of healthy salmon populations. Eelgrass beds also protect developing species such as herring, which are a food source for juvenile salmon. The construction of the new dock by Glacier Northwest will detrimentally affect eelgrass, disrupting species within the habitat. Docks and their construction affect eelgrass from underwater noise which would disturb fragile species, while creating shade that would threaten eelgrass growth. Docks would also harm the eelgrass beds that harbor young salmon by dredging (scooping and suctioning water ways) in order to improve navigation between piers. With the threat of development comes the possibility of building bulkheads, or extensive walls in the water to aid in collecting sediment. This loss of sediment would threaten the livelihood of many fish including salmon, and the man-made walls make it impossible for salmon and other fish to navigate through the waters natural currents.
Northwestern fence lizard
The northwestern fence lizard is a lesser known creature threatened by mining expansion. (Preserve Our Islands). The lizards themselves are far from endangered, even though South Maury Island is one of their only habitats in the Puget Sound area. However, removing these lizards from South Maury Island could be detrimental. The full effects of their absence on the island are unknown, but it is speculated that the insect populations that they feed on could rise without their natural predator, the effects of which could be anywhere from being a nuisance to destroying local flora. Also, Western Fence lizards are thought to diminish the danger of Lyme disease because when the ticks feed on the lizards, the Lyme disease bacteria is killed.
Feeder bluffs, also known as eroding shoreline bluffs, are a vital part of the shoreline habitat on Maury Island. The natural erosion of the bluffs helps control the amount of new sediment that is pushed down onto the beach, and later into the tidal and intertidal zones. The nutrients in the soil help nurture the growth of eel grass beds that contribute to sustaining a healthy ecosystem and food web on the island. Mining on the island by Glacier Northwest would remove important feeder bluffs and accelerate erosion. An abnormal amount of gravel, dirt and nutrients in the water would upset the delicate balance that supports forage fish and eel grass beds.
On November 21, 2000, Jennifer Belcher, the Washington State Lands Commissioner, declared five controversial areas around the Puget Sound as aquatic reserves. One month later in December 2000, Belcher added Maury Island to the list of aquatic reserves (Seattle Post-Intelligencer 2000). Many saw this as an attempt to make more obstacles for Glacier Northwest in its goal of obtaining a new dock permit. Subsequently, Glacier Northwest filed a lawsuit against Jennifer Belcher protesting her unilateral decision to establish the aquatic reserves (Gordon 2001). Despite the litigation, the Maury Island Aquatic Reserve was reaffirmed by Doug Sutherland, along with a more specific purpose and protection for the submerged lands in question (Gordon 2004).
Goals of the aquatic reserve
The reserve was designed to “conserve, preserve, restore, and/or enhance” the habitats and species that make up Maury Island (Draft Management Plan 14). Of the four main goals, the first goal is to conserve the native habitats of plants and wildlife species including forage fish, salmonids, and migratory birds. The second goal is to conserve the functions and native processes of the near-shore ecosystem. The third is to maintain the territory, habitats and species through education and providing opportunities for public involvement. The fourth goal is promote responsible management of recreational, commercial and cultural uses of Maury Island that relate to the previous goals. According to the management plan, a reviewed and updated version will be made every ten years for ninety years <http://thescubastop.com/forums/showthread.php?t=958>.
Threatened bird populations
Quartermaster Harbor, which lies between Maury Island and Vashon Island, has been declared by the Audubon Society as an “Important Bird Area” due to its rare intact ecosystem and eelgrass bed habitat (Audubon Society Washington Watchlist Webpage). The beds support herring, which are an important food source for many of the bird species that breed in Quartermaster Harbor (Audubon Society Washington Watchlist Webpage). Several of the species that use the area are either federally listed as being threatened or are strong candidates for state recognition as threatened species. Included on this list are the marbled murrelet, common loon, and Brandt's cormorant (Audubon Society Washington Watchlist Webpage). In addition, Quartermaster Harbor plays a large role in grebe ecology, with 8-10% of Washington’s total grebe population using it as winter habitat (Holt, A1). Western grebe populations have declined by about 95% since the 1970s, from 120,000 birds to less than 5,000 in the year 2000, making Quartermaster Harbor an important refuge for remaining birds (Holt, A1). Marbled murrelets are also on the decline, having lost nearly 96% of their population to oil spills, loss of habitat, and gill nets (Holt, A1; Audubon Society Marbled Murrelet Webpage).
These integral bird populations that are being threatened helped to prompt the Washington Department of Natural Resources to select Quartermaster Harbor and the southeastern shore of Maury Island as an aquatic reserve in 2003. One of four sites selected in the state of Washington, this particular area is not only rich in species of birds, but also includes many other diverse habitats such as extensive eelgrass beds, kelp beds, herring spawning grounds, Chinook salmon migratory corridors, and bottom fish rearing habitats. The proposed shoreline has been surveyed by the department and was found to have 78% of its expanse covered in eelgrass beds, which provide food for marine species as well as anchoring sediments and keep sub tidal environments moist (Maury Island Aquatic Reserve Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement). It was felt that the creation of the reserve would positively impact the aquatic vegetation through the implementation of good management policies, as well as setting standards for operations and construction in regard to marinas, over-water structures, recreational docks, and mooring buoys. An aquatic reserve would help create a healthy ecosystem that connects all of these habitats, which would create economic advantages and opportunities to enjoy these aquatic ecosystems for generations to come (Washington State Department of National Resources Webpage).
The Department of National Resources would partner with King County and the Department of Ecology to help the species in the marine habitat by improving water quality and minimizing soil erosion and shoreline hardening. These improvements would be countered by the actions of Glacier Northwest, which could contribute to the depletion of water quality as well as the destruction of bluffs and shorelines across the site.
Southern resident orca whale community
The aquatic reserve on Maury Island functions as a herring nursery and is in the migratory corridor of the endangered Chinook salmon. These fish, dependent on the eelgrass (Zostera marina) beds, are vital to the J, K and L Orca whale pods that occupy southern Puget Sound waters between the months of October and March. Salmon account for 90% of the orca whales’ diet, 2/3 of that consisting of the Chinook salmon. These three pods, currently consisting of 84 individual whales, utilize this area for a winter feeding ground as well as for calving and nursing their young (Preserve Our Islands Web site. Maury Island strip mine could cause killer whales to quit south sound). The Southern Resident orca (Orcinus orca) is listed by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission as an endangered species, and is listed as depleted under the Federal Marine Mammal Protection Act (Washington Dept. of Fish and Wildlife).
According to University of Washington research scientist David Bain, this orca population is "teetering on the brink of extinction" (Ervin 2004). Bain suggested that the Glacier Northwest’s proposed dock expansion, along with the frequent tug and barge traffic used to load and transport the gravel, could deter the orcas from utilizing this area. The noise created by loading the gravel onto the barges would be magnified by the water and, at full proposed operation, would be fairly constant. Bain, who is studying the effects of noise on the orcas for the National Marine Fisheries Service, suggests that being deterred from using this area could contribute to the extinction of this resident population.
Another pressing environmental concern South Maury Island faces is oil spills. Although they are not directly related to the Glacier Northwest mining controversy, oil spills add to the sensitivity of the area as an aquatic reserve. On October 14, 2004, an oil spill occurred in the Dalco Passage at around 1 AM. An estimated 1,000 gallons spilled into the waterways surrounding Vashon/Maury Island. The source of the oil was initially unknown, but tests carried out by the Coast Guard and Washington Department of Ecology determined that the source was the Polar Texas oil tanker owned by ConocoPhillips. (Washington State Department of Ecology Web Page: Dalco Passage Spill)
Though recent spills have been minor, there is concern that Washington does not have the capacity to respond to a big oil spill in the future, which would devastate the environment and have significant impacts on the surrounding community, wildlife, and fisheries. Efforts are being made to strengthen the community, State, and Coast Guard partnership in preventing and responding to oil spills effectively. Washington is also working to improve Tug Escorts for loaded tankers, enhance oil spill contingency plans, and remedy environmental damage already cased by oil spills. (Washington State Department of Ecology Web Page: Spill Prevention, Preparedness, and Response)
One of the more recent oil spills occurred on January 28, 2005. Ecology officials estimated that “hundreds of gallons” contaminated the Dalco Passage off Vashon/Maury Island. The cause of the spill is still unknown, even after the Coast Guard and Department of Ecology collected oil samples in an effort to identify the source (People for Puget Sound article on Jan. 2005 oil spill).
In dealing with significant oil spills, the Washington State Department of Ecology works with other organizations to assess the damage done in monetary value, and, if possible, seeks compensation from the responsible party(s). The State Department of Ecology then works with other organizations, using the money to mitigate the oil spill, to restore and protect priority wildlife habitats (Washington State Spill Prevention/Response page).
Vashon- Maury Island Community Council
Vashon-Maury Island faces many environmental issues, but the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council has been serving this island since 1933. This council is a town hall style forum for the discussion of issues relevant to the residents of the Vashon-Maury Islands. The Council is recognized by King County as an Unincorporated Area Community Council. As a town hall forum, decisions are made by a public vote at their general meetings. Much of the work of the Council takes place in its committees, which then forward their recommendations to the whole Council for action. Public meetings are held once a month and welcome all residents of the island over the age of 18 to discuss the upcoming events and issues surrounding this island. The council lets all residents know the issues the island is facing and allows people to take action.
Glacier Northwest's EIS
In order to mine for gravel, Glacier Northwest is required to provide an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) detailing the proposed scale of operation, which is then reviewed by King County. Sand and gravel extraction could be as high as 7.5 million tons per year, but could also be much lower, depending on demand. Also dependent on demand is the lifetime of the mine, which could be 11 years at full production, up to 35 years before the site is closed. The clearing of ground is proposed to occur in phases of 32 acres (129,000 m²) each, with no more than two phases in process at a time. In order to reduce arsenic contamination, contaminated materials will be contained within a sealed berm, and no contaminated materials will leave the site.
Also stated in the EIS are alternative actions that Glacier Northwest proposes to take in order for them to mine at the Maury Island site, including reduced hours of barging to control noise, mitigation of the Madrone forest, habitat retention for the pileated woodpecker by creating a habitat elsewhere prior to removing the Douglas-fir snags, and the alternative of not only repairing the dock that already exists, but replacing it altogether. This new dock is proposed to be built with the latest technology to reduce shade and contamination, and to extend into deeper water to avoid impacts to the most sensitive areas of the shoreline. Building a new dock would eliminate repeated repairs on the existing dock.
Possible advantages and disadvantages of the Glacier Northwest Gravel Pit
There are some possible advantages to the mining on South Maury Island, as well as disadvantages. According to Glacier Northwest, Maury island has one of the largest reserves of gravel rock, and, because it is an island, the gravel can be easily transported on barges to other areas of the Pacific Northwest. However, the barge traffic itself could increase pollution levels, and also increase the chances of possible collisions with endangered marine mammals who reside in or pass through the area. One of the arguments against the transportation of the rock is that the new dock that would be built for it has much potential for the destruction of vital habitat for sea life. The impact could be lessened if Glacier Northwest replaces or mitigates any damages caused by the dock. Another worry of the Preserve Our Lands and other groups is the possible arsenic contamination of the drinking water. This could be offset by large containers that could contain the waste from the mining. However, what would happen to the arsenic after has been contained has yet to be addressed in detail. Other benefits of the mining are the large number of jobs the mine could create, and the boost to the local economy that the mine might produce. However, the mine could also negatively affect tourism and property values in the area.
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