MARBLEMOUNT — Concerns are mounting about a proposed rock mine about a half-mile from the Skagit River near Marblemount.
Under the proposal, a steep hill would be blasted apart to provide the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with rock to be used for jetty repairs along the region’s coast.
With dozens of homes in the surrounding area, some residents say they are losing sleep over the proposal.
Rob Burrows, whose home is about 1,600 feet north of the proposed mine site, said his family is sick with worry, and has spent the past two weeks researching the proposal, organizing with neighbors and contacting county officials.
“I’m here to express my deep concern and opposition,” he said Tuesday during the weekly public comment period with the Skagit County Board of Commissioners. “There are 30 homes within three-quarters of a mile ... When we heard about this we were extremely distraught to learn this may be coming to our neighborhood.”
Burrows was one of four residents to address the commissioners Tuesday.
The Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, Seattle City Light and American Rivers are among those who have asked Skagit County Planning and Development Services to require an environmental impact statement, or EIS, to fully evaluate potential impacts.
Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki said planning department staff are processing comments received during a March 14-29 public comment period for permits related to the proposal.
“I heard that there were literally hundreds, 400 comments or so, that had come in,” she said.
Janicki said after the comments are reviewed, Skagit County Planning and Development Services Director Hal Hart will decide whether to require an EIS under the state Environmental Policy Act.
“I certainly think an EIS is necessary with something of this scale and impact,” she said.
Skagit County senior natural resource planner and geologist John Cooper said the county is preparing to open a new public comment period as soon as next week.
“We got a lot of requests for extending the comment period,” he said.
Cooper also emphasized the planning department has a lot of work ahead involving reviewing project documents and public comments before determining whether to require an EIS and eventually scheduling a public hearing.
“We’re very early on in the process,” he said.
Kiewit Infrastructure Co., an international construction, engineering and natural resource company, recently purchased about 520 acres about 1 mile southwest of Marblemount.
It wants to use that property, along with property owned by Cunninghan Crushing, to establish a 79-acre rock mine.
At the proposed Marblemount Quarry, Kiewit would take down an about 800-foot-high rock hill in steps carved out one at a time from the top down. The company plans to extract 3.8 million cubic yards of rock over a period of up to 100 years.
Rocks of 4 tons or larger, which would meet Army Corps requirements for building jetties, would be sent to project sites on the coast.
The mining would occur largely between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with up to 75 trucks hauling rock from the site each day.
The site is on Rockport Cascade Road, nestled in a forested area near where the Cascade River and Illabot Creek join the Skagit River.
In order to build an access road and other infrastructure, Keiwit would need to log 90 acres of the project site.
Kiewit has proposed the project in partnership with Cunningham Crushing, a local company that previously operated a small rock quarry at the site.
Cunningham Crushing would hold ownership of any rock smaller than 4 tons, which could be used locally for shoreline armoring or other construction projects.
Kiewit Infrastructure declined to comment on the proposal, and Cunningham Crushing did not respond to requests for comment.
Those who live near the proposed mine site say they know the area and disagree with several points made in the project documents, including about impacts to the environment and traffic.
ENVIRONMENTAL & CULTURAL CONCERNS
When it comes to wildlife, a biological assessment included in Kiewit’s project documents concluded that the mining would either take place outside of known habitat areas or that by using best management practices it would not impact wildlife including fish, birds and bears.
Several organizations disagree.
“Seattle City Light contends that the current environmental documentation does not contain sufficient detail or analyses,” the utility said in a comment letter.
Not only is the project site near the Skagit River — specifically a segment federally designated as Wild and Scenic — but it is also about 2.5 miles from the Wild and Scenic Illabot Creek, where a $5.3 million fish habitat restoration project was completed in September.
“This proposal sits in the heart of the Wild & Scenic Skagit River System,” a comment letter from the nonprofit American Rivers states. “This region is an important natural resource for both residents of the valley and those who visit the area to enjoy the fishing, boating, wildlife viewing, hiking, and foraging.”
The Skagit River watershed is home to all five species of Pacific salmon as well as steelhead and bull trout. Three of those fish species are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.
“The Skagit River and its tributaries near the proposed project site provide important habitat for all native salmonid species and host the largest run of Puget Sound chinook salmon,” Seattle City Light, which operates three hydroelectric dams on the river, said in its letter.
Under the permit that allows Seattle City Light to operate the dams, the public utility is required to protect Skagit River fish.
“City Light has made significant investments in salmon recovery and wildlife habitat protection in the Skagit River watershed and owns multiple parcels of conservation lands adjacent to the project,” the utility’s letter states.
Mike Young, who lives in the Marblegate community near the proposed mine, said he’s also worried about the impact of dust on water quality.
Kiewit’s project documents state dust would primarily be managed by spraying trucked water onto the project site, but what remains unclear is the impact that dust could have if it drains into area streams and the Skagit River.
The mine is also proposed in an area with cultural significance to multiple tribes.
“The proposed project in its entirety is located within the historical use and occupation area of the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe,” a comment letter from the tribe states. “This area of the Skagit was home to a major historical fishing village for our people for thousands of years.”
A cultural resources report included in Kiewit’s project documents found no signs of past human occupation and no artifacts at the site. The report concluded cultural impacts from the proposed mine are highly unlikely.
The Upper Skagit tribe disagrees.
“The tribe believes the great magnitude and duration of impact ... would result in irreparable harm to our culture and treaty reserved rights,” the tribe’s letter states.
The letter urges the county to deny the proposal.
“The tribe wishes that our remaining ancestor’s burial sites in the area are not subject to this type of disturbance ... This culturally sensitive locale is not appropriate for this type and scale of project,” it states.
The site of the proposed Marblemount Quarry is zoned to allow for mining, and there were six rock mining operations in the area in the 1970s, according to state Department of Natural Resources records.
But those who live nearby say the population in the area has grown since mines were common.
“This should not be zoned for mining by virtue of the fact that it’s now a residential area,” Rockport resident Dave Hallock said.
While Cunningham Crushing has more recently run a small-scale quarry at the site, that operation did not involve blasting or require 75 trucks per day.
Kiewit’s proposal is to mine the southern portion of a rock hill that extends north behind several homes.
Rockport Cascade Road resident Erin O’Brien owns one of those homes and appears to be about 400 feet from the property line of the proposed mine, according to Skagit County maps.
A few houses down, the Burrows family has evidence in their backyard that loose boulders sometimes fall from the rock hill without blasting reverberating through the hill. Their home is as little as 200 feet from the base of the hill.
“Most of the concern for many of us up against the wall is rock fall,” Burrows said. “This place is so special and it would just destroy the sanctity of our homes to have this operation.”
Others have highlighted concerns about wildfire risks and traffic impacts.
Looking up at the steep hillside, it’s clear that in the past the landscape has been marred by wildfire — a detail Kiewit highlights in its project documents. Neighbors say that makes them wary of having an industrial operation in the area, where emergency services are limited.
“If they are up there with heavy machinery that could throw a spark, that’s a risk,” said Kate Stewart, who owns a home in the Diobsud Creek neighborhood to the north.
Jose Vila, who lives in a neighborhood across the road from the proposed mine site, said he hadn’t imagined that a pristine area with mountains and rivers as well as a national park nearby might be subject to mining.
The boundary of the North Cascades National Park Service Complex, which includes the national park and the Ross Lake and Lake Chelan National Recreation Areas, is about 3.5 miles from the proposed mine.
“It’s flat-out crazy to do something like that on a tight little valley like this,” Vila said. “It would destroy this place, and if you read that proposal you would not get even the slightest sense of that.”
He scoffed at the document that concludes traffic from an estimated 25 employees and up to 75 trucks traveling to and from the site each day wouldn’t have an impact on roads between the proposed mine site and Interstate 5.
Up to 75 trucks coming to the mine empty and leaving full during a 12-hour period each day means up to about 12 trucks on the roads each hour.
Residents say that’s a big change.
“You can go an hour without seeing a car and you can walk and bike along here,” Burrows said of current traffic while standing on Rockport Cascade Road near the site of the proposed mine.
He and others say they’re also concerned about trucks trying to navigate the intersection of Highway 530 and Highway 20 near Rockport, where there is a turn that can be challenging even for passenger cars.
“That’s a bad intersection; it’s a blind corner,” Burrows said.
The large rock required for jetty construction is needed for various Army Corps projects, including at the mouth of the Columbia River, according to the project documents. Some of that rock is needed this summer.
“There are extremely limited sources of suitable rock in high enough quantities that can be permitted in the necessary time frame to be viable,” Kiewit’s project description states.
The corps is in the midst of the multi-year, $257-million Mouth of the Columbia River Jetty System Major Rehabilitation Project.
According to a fact sheet from the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association, the jetties are imperative to the shipping industry that traverses the Columbia and Snake rivers. The jetties help maintain the depth of the channel and protect ships as they move between the river and Pacific Ocean.
Residents near the proposed Marblemount Quarry say while they acknowledge producing jetty rock is important regionally, they don’t believe the location Kiewit has selected is appropriate.
“This is the last thing I would want in our neighborhood, and not to mention the environmental impact it would have,” area resident Becky Snyder told the Skagit County Commissioners. “The North Cascades Highway is one of the most precious places in our state. Let’s not ruin this area with all this truck traffic, the noise ... the impact on the local folk.”