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Jan. 19, 2020

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Mine traffic troubles neighbors

Gravel pit’s legality in question as residents report rise in truck traffic along rural road near Washougal

By , Columbian political reporter
Published:
3 Photos
Rachel Grice and her dog, Rusty, 3, take their morning stroll just as truck traffic from a nearby mine picks up. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)
Rachel Grice and her dog, Rusty, 3, take their morning stroll just as truck traffic from a nearby mine picks up. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

WASHOUGAL — Rachel Grice said she suspects she didn’t hear the runaway dump truck hurtling down a hillside past her house last week because its brakes weren’t working. She did, however, hear the emergency vehicles responding to its crash.

Grice, who lives with her family outside of Washougal, said she can hear dump trucks shift gears each morning around 6:45 a.m. as they begin their work days hauling gravel from a nearby mine. She said she can hear the trucks brake loudly as they make their way down the hill carrying their loads.

“It’s a high-pitch screech all the way down,” she said. “I was surprised that I never heard any screeching or honking, ’cause normally we hear all the trucks’ brakes going down.”

The truck, unable to stop, sped down the hill at more than 60 mph and crashed into a rail line owned by BNSF Railway last Thursday. It was later reported that the truck’s brakes had failed.

Ever since activity ramped up late last year at the Zimmerly gravel pit, located in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, neighbors have complained about the increase in noise and truck traffic. Now, residents and conservation group Friends of the Columbia Gorge say truck traffic has increased as a final decision on the mining’s legality is expected in coming weeks.

Earlier this year, Clark County notified Judy Zimmerly, the owner of the 120-acre property, and Nutter Corp., the holder of a lease on the property, that the mine is being operated without the necessary permits. The claim is currently being contested by lawyers for both parties.

Nathan Baker, senior staff attorney at Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said his group installed a camera on the road to record truck traffic from the pit. During a three-day period in June, the camera recorded 131 trucks each day, he said. By July 10, the count had increased to 226, he said.

Nutter could not be reached for comment by press time. But Steve Horenstein, a land-use lawyer representing Nutter, said in an email that a subcontractor hauler’s truck lost its brakes coming down the hill and it was fortunate that no one was hurt.

Grice takes Rusty, her family’s boxer, on a walk each morning where she sometimes sees as many as three trucks on the road. The truck traffic seems to have diminished since the accident, she said, but she remains concerned.

“To have 200 trucks a day is beyond excessive,” she said.

A question of permits

Operations have continued at the mine despite the county’s notices to Nutter and Zimmerly that the pit lacks the appropriate permits. Horenstein said he and Jamie Howsley, another land-use attorney representing Zimmerly, appealed in June the county’s actions to the hearings examiner, an outside attorney hired to evaluate whether the appropriate policies were followed by Clark County. The hearings examiner is expected to issue a decision in coming weeks.

“Our point is that this is a mine that should be regulated, and it can only be (regulated) to a permit — otherwise, nobody regulates,” Bill Richardson, Clark County deputy civil prosecutor, said during a hearing on July 17. “And we don’t see a valid permit that gives the mechanism for regulating the mining.”

Zimmerly was granted a permit by the state Department of Natural Resources in 1972 for 34 acres of mining. Richardson, however, pointed to documents he said demonstrate that Zimmerly indicated that mining ceased in 1984 and that the permit was discontinued.

During the hearing, Howsley said the site is regulated and subject to various environmental laws. He said the permit remains valid unless Zimmerly showed intent to abandon the mine. He also said the permit was reaffirmed in 1993 by the Columbia River Gorge Commission, which handles land-use decisions in the gorge.

“All of the evidence demonstrates time and time again that there was never an intent to abandon (the mine), there was no overt act to do so,” said Howsley, who explained that mining encompasses a wide range of activities including grading or storing of material. “Mining activities have occurred there and continue to occur there to the present day.”

In an interview, Horenstein explained that the hearings examiner is focused on the question of whether the mine has a valid permit. Friends of the Columbia Gorge unsuccessfully attempted to gain party status in the case in order to argue issues including the historical use of the site, applicable legal authorities and operational issues, such as truck traffic and safety.

Friends has filed a brief with the examiner, who has not signaled whether it will be considered.

‘One of our greatest fears’

BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said the dump truck crash occurred around 1:30 p.m. He said the truck was traveling more than 60 mph before hitting the rail line, which he said was pushed several feet after being struck.

He said the crash shut down the line for 12 hours and delayed 10 trains. He said the driver was taken to the hospital.

Grice said people may criticize her and other residents for moving near a mine and then complaining about it. But she said activity at the mine picked up after she and her family took up residence in February.

“When you buy this kind of property, you don’t think you’ll be having 200 trucks go by a day,” she said.

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Wayne Ritter, who has lived in the area for more than 30 years, said he hasn’t seen much activity at the mine during the time he’s lived there, except for a period during the 1990s.

Sean Streeter, another resident who lives nearby and has complained about the noise, said he saw the aftermath of the crash and took pictures.

“We were fortunate on many levels,” he said in an email. He pointed out that the truck didn’t swerve into one of his neighbor’s homes nor did it collide with a bus full of students coming from a nearby school. “This could have been so much worse and could have caused an extreme tragedy to our community. This has been one of our greatest fears.”

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