A Quarry Quandary

Massive rock-moving proposal in Marblemount

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

A small yellow notice sign at the base of some cliffs on a quiet road in Marblemount changed the trajectory of my and my neighbor’s lives this spring. The small sign points to a massive proposal to blow up a rocky ridge called Big Bear Mountain into jetty rock and truck it to the Columbia River.

Yes, jetty rock is needed, but this quarry proposal would blast an 1,100-ft tall promontory out of existence. Roughly 30 homes are adjacent to or in near proximity to the quarry site and hundreds more are within earshot of the types of activities the applicant proposes.

Would it create local jobs? No. Kiewit Corporation, the mining company based in Seattle, has said the estimated 25 jobs to work the quarry would be drawn from existing union employees.

Property values, a peaceful setting, local tourist economy and sense of place will be strip-mined if this proposal is permitted.

Big Bear Mountain would vanish. In its place, a stockpiled mound of waste rock, as high as 200 feet, covering an expanse of 28-acres. A 12- to 20-foot-tall berm is suggested in the applicant’s permit documents to mitigate noise for the nearest neighbors. The rocky backdrop would broadcast sound across the river and throughout the valley like a speaker.
From the permit documents I learned the great magnitude and complexity of planned activities for the next 100 years with relatively scant discussion of effects—near term or cumulative.

The project anticipates about 260 truck trips per day—averaging one truck every three minutes, and as many as 75 of these trips could be oversized trucks hauling jetty stone across 24 miles of narrow county road—the Rockport Cascade Road that closely borders the Skagit River and is not built for those load weights or traffic frequency. From the Rockport Cascade Road to SR-530, heavy trucks would travel over the Skagit River bridge in Rockport, a narrow bridge not adequate for those loads or frequency. From there, trucks would make a tight turn onto SR-20 to head west en route through Sedro-Woolley to Interstate 5. Yet there is no mention in this proposal of how to get big trucks around the several traffic circles in Sedro-Woolley or where the trucks would go once they reach I-5, leaving many questions about road maintenance, road safety, increased congestion and the carbon footprint associated with long-haul transport.

If permitted, the industrial operation to log, build a road, create a staging area, blast, stockpile, crush rock and perform maintenance on large heavy equipment day and night, would be heard and seen in great detail by local residents, fishermen, rafters, eagle watchers, family vacationers and, yes, real estate brokers.

What Kiewit has proposed would affect the environment, the wildlife, residents and tourists. It would shatter our daily lives with incessant noise, air pollution, and would scar the beautiful stretch of land my family and friends have called home for decades.

Those of us who recognized what was at stake began reading the detailed project proposal and permitting documents—more than 1,000 pages in length. I and hundreds of other adults and children, tribes and agencies, have now filed comments with the Skagit County planning office opposing the project.

The implications for road congestion, road safety, environmental impacts and treaty rights would stretch far beyond the local area. Area treaty tribes have already expressed their opposition to the project due to the baldly apparent effects this proposal could have on the cultural and natural resources that are deeply important to them.

.After reading Kiewit’s submitted documents, I listed my main takeaways and concerns:

• Trailering in and staging heavy equipment, including trucks so big they would have to be brought in disassembled with excavators so large they require a 14-rung ladder to get into them.
• Construction of more than a mile of road more than 60 feet across to be used for logging and future mining operations through an area with no current approved use for mining outside of the county’s Mineral Resources Overlay.
• Blasting as many as six times per day on slope grading prone to landslides perched above nearly 30 nearby homes. The resulting road, at about 12 percent grade, would require using loud vehicle brakes numerous times per day. With a backdrop of rocky ridge, this sound would be amplified to and across the river like a speaker.
• Blasting would use ammonium nitrate fuel oil (ANFO) or other emulsions and would require huge drilling rigs. Large volumes of lubricant (likely oil- based) would be needed to keep drilling equipment from seizing. Fly rock during blasting would spread this residue across the site. Roughly 100 inches of rain per year could flood it to the Skagit River.
• Chainsaw and heavy equipment noise for a timber harvest of 2.7 million board feet across 90 acres, along with truck traffic to transport all that timber (i.e, diesel trucks 80 feet in length that could haul loads up to 80,000 pounds).
• Removal of 9.6 million cubic yards of quarry rock using massive on-site trucks for hauling stone, fuel and heavy equipment, such as the quarry haul trucks too big and heavy for permitted highway use, with gross weight of 256,000 pounds each. This would create dust and noise impacts for residents and visitors.
• Truck traffic from 6am to 6pm Monday through Saturday, and vehicle maintenance 6pm to midnight. Occasional periods of other activities outside of the stated hours are also anticipated. Yet no mention of how lights used for nighttime work and security would affect the night sky or how the sound of maneuvering trucks with back up alarms (one of the most grating sounds in existence) would affect the night time soundscape.
• The trucks used for hauling jetty stone would be oversized (with trailers including 7-8 axles) carrying jetty rock weighing as much as 105,000 pounds. Stones exceeding 28 tons each would require special hauling equipment and oversize/overweight permits. Kiewit’s operations proposal does not describe how these vehicles would navigate several traffic circles in Sedro-Woolley to reach I-5. No mention of how the increased congestion would affect multiple communities and safety of roads and motorists along the route.
• The route listed for jetty rock and log transport is a school bus route for the Concrete School district. School buses are on this route twice a day, from fall until summer. The bus route is already unreasonably long for children—roughly 2.5 hours per day.

This locale is surrounded by homes specifically chosen for their quiet, natural setting. Marblemount is a gateway community to the North Cascades mountains and protected federal lands including wild and scenic rivers and federally designated wilderness in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and North Cascades National Park.

This is a community where the Skagit River Eagle Festival happens each January on a river that hosts hundreds of eagles each winter. It’s the highest migratory eagle population in the lower 48 states, and the stretch of river where the quarry is proposed always has the highest counts—111 eagles last winter. In the summer, visitor numbers to and through this area explode due to access to some of the best hiking, climbing, backpacking, camping, boating, fishing, motorcycling and biking in the state.

The Rockport Cascade Road is a route listed on the Skagit County Bike Map as a way to “discover the Skagit Valley.” What bicyclists would discover instead is a quarry town.

By contrast, on an adjacent property to the quarry proposal, Seattle City Light identifies animal habitat conservation as a priority. Key species such as peregrine falcons, eagles, fishers, lynx, red fox, wolves, and marbled murrelets have been observed by wildlife biologists and community members on or adjacent to the Kiewit property. Some of these species are being tracked by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW). Mature trees in the proposed development area show potential for spotted owl habitat, yet potential to affect this issue is not even considered in the submitted documents.

Risk of contaminating the Skagit River ecosystem is high. From the blasting alone, dust from asbestos-bearing rock (Shuksan green schist contains actinolite) would become airborne as well as adhere to the spoils piles and large jetty rock being removed from the site and tranported over distance.

Nowhere in the project proposal or environmental documents is there any mention of controlling the spread of asbestos particulate that could put human and animal health at risk and threaten water quality and fish.

If the county planning office chooses to make a “threshold determination of significance”—which is legal speak for “this project is complicated and the state-mandated environmental checklist doesn’t cover it”—the requirement to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) will provide the basis for a series of evaluations and public review periods that would at least capture more of the magnitude, complexity and cumulative nature of effects related to Kiewit’s proposed actions. These considerations would include possible connections to federal laws like the Clean Water Act and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, both of which safeguard our nation’s rivers, but in different ways.

Comments on the Marblemount quarry proposal may be submitted by hard copy to the Skagit County Planning Office or through an online form prior to 4:30pm Mon., May 13. For more information, To read comments already submitted go to

Andrea L. Weiser is a naturalist, archaeologist and author. She lives with her husband and daughter near the edge of wilderness and North Cascades National Park.

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