Opposition to mining runs deep on Livingston Mountain

Residents fight state agency's efforts to reverse county panel's recommendation

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

Published:

 
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Months after the Clark County Planning Commission recommended not to expand mining zones through Livingston Mountain, the issue will come back before the county Thursday at a joint meeting of the planning commission and the board of commissioners.

An update of what's known as the county's "surface mining overlay" — areas in which mining is a permitted use — could open the door to new or expanded operations in some rural parts of Clark County. On Livingston Mountain near Camas, the issue has led to a dispute between residents and the state, with the county stuck in the middle.

Thursday's meeting will provide an update — the first since October, when the planning commission unanimously vetoed the notion of expanding mining zones. But residents worry that the county will shift course, at the direction of the state Department of Natural Resources, and ignore the recommendation. There will be no public comment at Thursday's meeting.

Livingston Mountain and Yacolt Mountain have been the epicenters of attention in the review process. And up on Livingston Mountain, residents say they're again uncertain about the future.

When Tyler and Wendy McCullough moved to their upscale neighborhood, they say they didn't know adjacent land could be swallowed up by a mining overlay. Homes in the gated community fetch more than $1 million and, Wendy McCullough said, an expansion of the existing Livingston quarry would send those values plummeting. Residents have also complained about dust, noise, traffic and potential degradation to well water caused by the mines.

They say they have a right to live on Livingston Mountain and that expanding nearby quarries, less than a mile away, would cause problems for the community. They say the county had a chance to designate mineral lands on the mountain before people moved there.

"They permitted everybody to live up here," said Tyler McCullough, seated on a deck overlooking a descending hillside. "It's now almost completely built out, in five-acre lots."

He said the county has provided mixed signals on where the process is headed.

The state Department of Natural Resources drew up an inventory of mineral resources in 2005. A local Mineral Lands Task Force began looking at the issue in 2011. After that, a new map and code language were developed, and then the county went back to the drawing board in 2012.

The county has said expanding the overlay wouldn't be the same as handing mining operators a blank check because each operation would have to be independently approved.

That hasn't assuaged concerns. So for the time being, the process remains in the political realm, with legal action a distant possibility, said Mark Martin, another Livingston Mountain resident. Nonetheless, Friends of Livingston Mountain, a citizen-led opposition group, has retained the services of David Mann, a Seattle-based attorney who has fought mining expansions elsewhere.

If Friends of Livingston Mountain isn't successful politically, it will pursue legal action, Martin said.

It's not the only potential threat. Martin said a January letter from the Department of Natural Resources contained veiled legal threats in requesting the county reverse the planning commission's recommendation against a mining zone expansion. The letter said the county "must" designate areas around the existing Livingston Mountain quarry as mining resource land to meet Growth Management Act guidelines."

The county doesn't necessarily see it that way.

"I think the word threat is kind of silly," said Chris Cook, Clark County deputy prosecuting attorney. "In this great country of ours, anybody can sue anybody for anything. Under growth management, if you don't like what a local government did, you can bring an appeal."

She said any of the parties could appeal the county's decision if it's not to their liking.

DNR outlines position

In its Jan. 29 letter, the Department of Natural Resources urged the county to reject the planning commission's decision.

The state stands to receive a projected $5.5 million in royalty payments over the quarry's 13-year lease. Of that, the DNR estimates, about $3.85 million is expected to be funneled directly to county schools. The county must consider the "societal value of the Livingston quarry," the letter says.

Friends of Livingston Mountain, however, balk at that argument. They've complained that mining trucks endanger their roads and have urged the county to limit the operator's activity.

An about-face by the county on the planning commission's recommendation would come as a slap, Tyler McCullough said. The planning commission held four meetings on the overlay and received roughly 20 hours of public testimony before making a decision last fall.

He said the county hasn't been entirely forthcoming with information about where it's heading, causing residents to question what its motives are.

"You're either building a case for or against," Tyler McCullough said, "and we don't know what they're doing. … What we don't know is if they're trying to procure supportive evidence, and the county has been radio silent."