Thurston County now revising Mineral Land Policy

Thurston County now revising Mineral Land Policy

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(by Sue Danver) – Thurston County government is planning a major revision of its policy on mineral resource lands that could drastically change local land use and the rural nature of the County. This summer the County Commissioners are expected to finalize a new Comprehensive Plan Policy, with significant changes affecting the mineral-lands portion of the Natural Resources Lands chapter.

In 2016, Thurston County mapped the locations of its aggregate (sand and gravel) and bedrock deposits. In March 2017, the Thurston County Planning Commission (PC) designated as Mineral Lands of Long-term Significance all mapped sand, gravel, and quarry deposits, an area of about 141,000 acres. The County Commissioners will confirm or reject this recommendation this summer. Since 2006, about 2,000 acres have had mineral designation.

How does mineral lands designation affect Thurston County citizens? It means that in a hearing for the approval of a mine application, designation as Mineral Lands gives the extraction of mineral resources preferential use of that land. A proposed mine must still meet county and state environmental standards, such as those dealing with noise, ambient light, decreased air quality, water pollution, lowering of the water table, and reduction of rural wildlife. However, citizens’ concerns may take a back seat to the potential of a county-valued mine. Also, it is unlikely that mineral-land status would be reversed in the future.

It is important to keep strong environmental standards in the Comprehensive Plan and, if not there, then in the County development code. Already, the PC has approved a 1,000-foot separation distance (because of incompatible activities) between lands with mineral designation and parks and preserves. We applaud this decision. In April, the PC will also review and recommend the future development code. Many changes have been made to the current code; BHAS is now reviewing the staff’s draft.

Initially:

  • We support the staff’s newly added water quality and quantity requirements, which must be met to obtain a mine permit. A hydrogeologist who has worked on gravel issues for BHAS before will review the new water code, and BHAS will submit his code suggestions before the April public comment period.
  • We oppose two code changes: (1) allowing the expansion of an existing mine onto neighboring non-designated parcels, including an additional option to ignore the 1,000’ separation distance between parks and mines. (2) Allowing a new mine to develop on an entire parcel when as little as 5% of that parcel is designated mineral land, with an option to ignore any 1,000’ separation distance if a natural area park/reserve is in that parcel. This could result in thousands of acres added to the overall 141,000 acres of designation outside the standard Comprehensive Plan amendment process.
  • We anticipate recommending additional code to incorporate the Best Available Science to protect wildlife and their habitat from industrial activities such as loud noise, lights, and particulate matter.
  • We will be supporting greater protection of Agricultural Lands of Long-term Commercial Significance and agricultural lands in general. South Sound Farmland Trust is now working on their position and code recommendations.

The expansion of potentially mineable lands in the County raises other concerns. No one involved with this issue can estimate how many mines there could be; the number will depend on how much aggregate will be exported from our County. How will the County and its citizens deal with the cumulative effects of increased mining? The County has marketable gravel of excellent quality (clean and the right size). With multiple mines, we could lose the balance of resource use that is the vision of our citizens.

We would appreciate hundreds of comments to the Planning Commission Public Hearing. Public input and high numbers are very important. We will be recommending comments in the April CHIRPS. Thank you.