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News / Business / Clark County Business

Lawsuits over Columbia Gorge gravel pit slowing after court denies owners’ request for review

Gravel mine east of Washougal within Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: October 3, 2023, 6:03am

Nearly half a decade of lawsuits surrounding a controversial gravel pit east of Washougal are slowing as even more governing entities deny resuming operations at the site.

Gravel mine owner Judith Zimmerly and operator Nutter Corp. continue vying for their ability to mine their property, at 6303 S.E. 356th Ave., within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

The Friends of the Columbia Gorge, a conservation organization involved in all lawsuits against Zimmerly and Nutter, calls the mining operation the largest and longest-running violation in the Columbia River Gorge.

On Sept. 6, the Washington Supreme Court denied Zimmerly and Nutter’s petition for review, filed in May, effectively refusing to hear their arguments to mine there without land use permitting. The ruling is the latest in a lengthening list of cases, appeals and motions for reconsideration before both county and state judges, a federal judge and the gorge commissioners.

Prior to the state Supreme Court decision, Clark County Hearings Examiner Joe Turner denied an application for development permits in June. He ruled that the Zimmerly and Nutter application was incomplete under National Scenic Area rules, contained elements prohibited by zoning regulations and needed an environmental impact statement.

In response, the mine owner and operator appealed the hearing examiner’s decision in the Clark County Superior Court; the Friends group filed a motion to dismiss.

According to the conservation group, Zimmerly and Nutter have lost all 11 cases, appeals and motions for reconsideration in 2023. Tim Dobyns, the group’s communication director, said Zimmerly and Nutter have “exhausted all their options” on the county level — except for appealing Turner’s ruling.

If the appeal is denied, the Friends of the Columbia Gorge sees this as an indication that the nearly six-year legal battle and the three decadeslong odyssey is coming to an end.

“We’re excited to get it over with,” he said.

The Friends group filed its own appeal to the Gorge Commission — a body that oversees policies in the area, including land use disputes — on the basis that the hearing examiner’s decision contains errors, including a ruling that Zimmerly isn’t required to get permits for prior construction despite them already agreeing to comply. The commission will likely hear the case in 2024, according to the organization.

James Howlsey , an attorney for Zimmerly and Nutter, did not return calls for comment Monday.

A long debate

The Columbia River Gorge was designated a national scenic area by Congress in 1986, more than a decade after the Washington Department of Natural Resources permitted mining on the site in 1972.

In 1993, the Columbia River Gorge Commission issued a development review for the gravel pit, which acted as a permit and came with several conditions for it to remain active. Among the stipulations was a note that the permit would be nullified if mining halted for a year or longer.

Mining activity didn’t occur for decades until Zimmerly and Nutter reopened the site in 2017, where they hauled rock from the pit through 2020.

Locals and environmental groups deemed these operations “illegal” because of the permit’s defunct status — that and because the mining lacked needed land-use, surface mining and conditional use authorizations, according to previous reporting from The Columbian.

Consequently, Zimmerly and Nutter were accused of violating a series of previous rulings made by Clark County officials, the Gorge Commission and Clark County Superior Court.

In December 2021, the court decided that the defendants were the winning group in the lawsuits, including Friends of the Columbia River Gorge and residents living near the mining site. Both groups contend that mining operations have led to strain in the area, whether related to mining trucks frequenting narrow roads or sediment runoff flowing into salmon habitat.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

Columbian staff writer