Bear Mountain

Mining proposal looms over Skagit

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

They thought it was over.

Late last summer, when Kiewit Infrastructure withdrew its application for an extensive surface-mining permit at a rock face on Big Bear Mountain, just outside of the village of Marblemount, members of the Skagit River Alliance breathed a sigh of relief. Members had formed the nonprofit due to the scope of the proposed project and the dangers they saw in it when it was up for approval before the Skagit County Planning and Development department.

“I guess I was in disbelief, but I was elated as well,” recalls Andrea Weiser, an active member of the alliance. “But it also left me with a niggling fear that they might be back.”

Her fears were well-founded.

A little over a year later, a request for a surface-mining permit for the site has been filed with the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) by Cunningham Crushing Inc., which owns the property. Cunningham had been prepared to allow Kiewit Infrastructure to operate the mine under the previous proposal.

At the time Kiewit withdrew its application, the Skagit County’s planning department was preparing to require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as part of its review. Members of the alliance speculate that the time involved in having to contract for an EIS caused Kiewit to abandon its plans to use the Big Bear Mountain site as the material source for the construction of the south jetty at the mouth of the Columbia River on which Kiewit had submitted a bid.

“The wait for an EIS would have put the [Columbia River] project off the table” for Kiewit, says Jose Vila, president of the Skagit River Alliance. Ultimately that bid went to another company, but members of the alliance remained vigilant.

Vila kept in touch with the applicable state and county agencies. Nearly a year after the original application was pulled off the table in Skagit County, Vila, who had been periodically checking online for any new developments and was doing research for a newsletter article, discovered that a modified application for the Big Bear Mountain site had resurfaced, this time submitted to DNR.

“Skagit County was just kind of sidelined on this,” Vila observes, noting that normally local agencies act as the lead in State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) reviews required for operations like surface mining.

While Vila was surprised by the change in the lead agency for the permit, he was even more surprised that parties of interest, including the Skagit River Alliance, had not been notified of the permitting process and that DNR was preparing to issue a Determination of Non-Significance (DNS).

The new proposal differs significantly from Kiewit’s original plan to mine the entire 800-foot face of Big Bear Mountain. Many of the same concerns from the last proposal, which would have required an EIS, still remained despite the scaled-down plan to mine the 300-foot talus slope that buttresses the rock face.

Despite the fact that DNR has denied a first phase reopening of the mine several times over the past 20 years because of safety concerns with the fractured rock face, alliance members say it appears DNR has based its DNS decision on a 1976 permit issued by Skagit County.

The alliance argues that the type of operation and operational footprint described in that permit does not fit the operation for which approval is being sought from DNR by Cunningham Crushing Inc.

“Something about this doesn’t feel right,” Weiser says, adding that she doesn’t think people realize the potential effects of what’s proposed.

Among the concerns she and other members of the Skagit River Alliance identify are increased heavy truck traffic to and from the proposed quarry site, noise from blasting and rock-crushing operations, effects on wildlife, and the detrimental impact of a large industrial mining operation on an area that bills itself as “The Gateway to the American Alps” at the confluence of two Wild and Scenic rivers, the Skagit and the Cascade. But of all the concerns the Skagit River Alliance lists, none weighs more heavily on members and many in the community than the possibility of asbestos pollution.

The Big Bear Mountain rock face, looming over the village and the two rivers it sits astride, is composed largely of Shuksan greenschist, as is its talus slope. Actinolite is a common crystal contained in Shuksan greenschist and one of six recognized types of asbestos. Actinolite forms of asbestos yield exceedingly small fibers that can be taken into the lungs and pose a larger risk to health than other serpentine forms of asbestos, according to a public health statement released by the U.S. Center For Disease Control.

That danger has led the Skagit River Alliance to demand that DNR conduct an investigation of the site for the actinolite forms of asbestos. That concern also weighs heavily in the Upper Skagit Tribe’s consideration of the issue.

“We’re concerned on a whole lot of different levels,” says Scott Schuyler, policy representative for the Upper Skagit Tribe. In particular, according to Schuyler, “asbestos would be a big concern. We’re not convinced DNR did an adequate job analyzing the potential adverse effects of mining.”

Schuyler says the possibility of airborne asbestos contamination in light of blasting and crushing activity at the Big Bear Mountain site is a large concern, given its proximity to the Skagit and Cascade rivers and the tribe’s federal treaty rights on the rivers.

Shared concerns Schuyler has with the alliance in addition to the salmon fishery are possible effects from the project on species such as peregrine falcons, eagles, fishers, lynx, red fox, wolves and marbled murrelets, all of which have been observed by wildlife biologists and community members on or adjacent to the proposed mine site.

“Our habitat biologist has submitted [those concerns]” to DNR. Noting the lack of an applicable wildlife study, Schuyler says, “We just hope the DNR considers all the adverse effects that could occur.”

That hope is echoed by the Skagit River Alliance.

“It seems like as a state, we generally do the right thing,” observes alliance member Rob Klengler. “I am hopeful that DNR will do the right thing now and call for the right documentation on this project.”

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