US mine faces questions over legality and safety risks
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US mine faces questions over legality and safety risks

By JP Casey 27 Jul 2018

County Clark hearings examiner Joe Turner is set to issue a final verdict on the conduct of a rock mining operation near the city of Washougal in the Columbia River Gorge in the US, as locals have questioned the legality and safety of the mine.

US mine faces questions over legality and safety risks
The routes of 200 site vehicles travelling to and from the mine every day, over a 12-hour period, has caused significant disruption for locals. Credit: Wikimedia

County Clark hearings examiner Joe Turner is set to issue a final verdict on the conduct of a rock mining operation near the city of Washougal in the Columbia River Gorge in the US, as locals have questioned the legality and safety of the mine.

Environmental group Friends of the Columbia Gorge has argued that the quarry, which is owned by Judith Zimmerly and Vancouver-based Nutter Corporation, should be closed down as the operators have failed to obtain site plan approvals for surface mining or gain permission from the Columbia River Gorge Commission to conduct their operations.

According to Marty Snell, former director of the county’s community development, the only permit held by Zimmerly and Nutter is a permit for land reclamation issued in 2007.

“[You have] no valid permit to operate the quarry and…no conditional use permit to allow rock crushing or other activities within the quarry,” wrote Snell in a January letter to Zimmerly and Nutter. “If you wish to pursue the legal operation of mining in this quarry, my office will provide you with assistance regarding the applications and the permitting process.”

Traffic to and from the Washougal mine has been a source of disruption for locals; some have reported not being made aware of the quarry when moving to the area, and their frustration at daily truck journeys taking place from 6:45am until 6pm. Rachel Grice, who lives between the quarry and the nearby Evergreen Highway, called the traffic a ‘noise nightmare’.

Site vehicles have also posed a threat to the safety of locals, with a truck carrying mining material away from the quarry losing control on the road and crashing into the nearby Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail tracks on 19 July. While no-one was hurt, train traffic was disrupted for the day and with around 200 trucks moving through the area every day there is the potential for more accidents and disruptions.

“Four times over the past year the county has notified them that they are illegally mining,” said Nathan Baker, senior lawyer for the Friends of the Columbia Gorge. “The incident yesterday was a perfect example of how dangerous the truck traffic is. There is a hill there, so it is inherently dangerous for trucks going downhill…and neighbours say trucks are violating the posted ten mils per hour speed limit.”

Baker and the group have also expressed concern over a potential repeat of an environmental disaster that hit the area 20 years ago when the Zimmerly family dug ditches at the Washougal site, which filled with rainwater and caused millions of gallons of polluted mine waste to flow into the nearby Gibbons Creek and Steigerwald wildlife reserve. The family was fined $200,000 for the event, but operations at the quarry continued.

The Zimmerly family and the Nutter Corporation insist they have permission to operate the mine, which they have done since 1972. However, critics argue that the years of inoperation at the mine – production was halted for at least five years in the 1990s – may invalidate the group’s permit. Turner has said he hopes to reach a decision within two weeks of 19 July.