August 11, 2018
(by Sue Danver) – Thurston County’s rural beauty and water quantity and quality are under serious threat. Between October 2018 and early 2019, the Thurston County Board of Commissioners (BoCC) will finalize a state-required update of the County Comprehensive (Comp) Plan. The Mineral Resources Lands section of the Natural Resource Chapter is where the BoCC is strongly leaning to making the most radical changes. Thurston County residents must resist the direction in which the BoCC is headed.
The current mineral-designation language, adopted in 2010 after years of stakeholder meetings and compromise, has 5,623 designated acres. As of August 1, the BoCC wants to revise that acreage to at least 141,000, a 25-fold increase! Thurston County’s gravel is generally of high quality, and miners appear to be pressuring the BoCC to protect these mineral lands at the sacrifice of farmland, refuges, public parks, and Urban Growth Areas. The Washington WAC 365-190-070 explains the power of designation:
“Counties and cities must designate known mineral deposits so that access to mineral resources of long-term commercial significance is not knowingly precluded. Priority land use for mineral extraction should be retained for all designated mineral resource lands.”
Basically, if a land owner wants to mine a parcel that has mineral designation, neighbors to such a mine might be able to mitigate a major hazard, but the mine most likely will be permitted because of its WAC priority. And once established, mineral-land designations would be very difficult to reverse. Mining companies would likely legally challenge a future reversal of policy.
Based upon a 2017 geologic survey to identify mineral resources (gravel and hard rock), County staff developed four options that map varying levels of designated area. While all choices greatly increased the designated lands, BHAS favored the Map 2 option with the lowest acreage (107,000), which took into account critical areas that should not or could not be mined. With only three days notice, BHAS members and friends sent the Planning Commission (PC) over 120 emails asking for Map 2 and not to co-designate 2,000 farmland protected acres with mineral lands. Instead of following this citizen input, most of the PC members chose Map 1 (141,000+ acres designated) and to co-designate Long-Term Agriculture and mineral lands. Fortunately, the PC kept the current language of 1,000-ft. buffers between mineral lands designation and public parks, refuges, and Urban Growth Areas.
Jennifer Davis, chair of the Planning Commission at the time of the PC decision, wrote this dissenting statement:
“The Planning Commission received a large amount of written and oral testimony concerned with both the amount of land proposed for designation, and against co-designation with long term agriculture. Mineral lands guidelines clearly allow Thurston County to weigh our local values in designating mineral lands. The data shows we have an abundance of mineral resources. We do not have an abundance of long-term Agricultural lands. Once lost, these lands are unlikely to be recovered for agricultural production. In addition, we have extensive knowledge of where very sensitive critical areas are that are obviously incompatible with mining. Our data on critical areas will improve with time, but it seems prudent now to at least exclude from designation known areas where groundwater resources and habitat for threatened and endangered species exist. For these reasons, and with respect to the many concerned citizens we heard I strongly disagree with the majority vote.”
But on July 24, the BoCC revisited what they had sent to the PC this spring and requested the PC to consider two new options: a) allow any tract with 5% designated land in an otherwise non-designated parcel to be mined, and b) if an already-established mine wants to expand its operations onto adjacent non-designated land, it can. These two options could occur even if the parcel included a 1,000-ft. buffer, and would add 6,232 acres to the already 141,000+ designated acres.
The effects of gravel mines are profound and lasting: noise from trucks, earth movers and gravel sifters; bright and continuous lights; and compromised air quality from diesel fumes and particulate matter. Deep gravel pits, up to 90 feet, can alter water flow, raising waters down-gradient and lowering them up-gradient. This can change water levels in wetlands, which commonly occur in glacial-deposit terrain. Spills can occur and enter the aquifer if the mine is deep, potentially threatening hydrogeologic (underground) water flows, Thurston County’s source of drinking water.
Yes, this is a complex issue. Decisions on the designation of mineral lands will affect the community for a very long time. At their agenda-setting meetings, it appears that the BoCC likes the Planning Commission’s recommendation to prioritize 75% of Thurston County as mineral lands at the sacrifice of protected farms, public parks, refuges, and water.
What Can You Do??
1) There will be a public hearing, probably in October, before the Planning Commission regarding the expansion of mines onto non-designated lands, including lands in 1,000-ft. buffers. BHAS will send an alert encouraging its members and others to attend the public hearing and/or send comments to the PC in advance of the hearing.
2) Encourage the BoCC to reduce the amount of land proposed for mineral designation. We chose the smallest-acreage option offered in March 2018 (107,000 acres). An even smaller amount, which would protect sensitive areas, would be preferable.