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News / Northwest

Snohomish County issues order to stop work at gravel yard next to school

By Daniel Beekman, The Seattle Times
Published: February 24, 2024, 7:15am

Snohomish County issued an “emergency order” Wednesday to stop work at a gravel yard that’s come under scrutiny over the past year for operating directly next to an elementary school and for lacking permits. The yard has drawn complaints from teachers and parents about noise, dust and exhaust.

The Everett Aggregate Yard submitted applications for a “land disturbing activity” permit and for site-plan approval to the county last week. But Wednesday’s order by the county’s Department of Planning and Development Services says “all use and operations on the site are to be discontinued immediately” because the yard next to Fairmount Elementary School is currently operating without a permit and isn’t complying with standards related to the zoning of the property, including noise laws.

Emergency orders are generally issued in response to activities that endanger property, the public or the environment. A county notice issued Wednesday mentions violations at the yard related to processes and equipment, noise, landscaping and storage. The notice says the yard owned by Mountain Loop Mine, which in turn is owned by OMA Construction, must stop work until it gets permits and completes an environmental review.

It wasn’t clear Wednesday exactly when the county would make decisions about the yard’s permit and site plan applications; a spokesperson said the county’s review process could take months.

Violating an emergency order can lead to criminal prosecution, Wednesday’s order says. Such orders can be appealed to the county’s hearing examiner.

In an email, OMA Construction vice president Brandon Akers said the company would comply with the county’s order by stopping work at the yard but would file an appeal, “as we disagree with the violations.”

Meanwhile, the county “is committed to ensuring businesses under our jurisdiction comply with code and adhere to all health and permitting requirements,” Department of Planning and Development Services spokesperson Jacob Lambert said in an emailed statement. “We work to balance enforcement with collaborative efforts to bring businesses into compliance while protecting human and environmental health.”

The 2.67-acre yard near Everett serves as a distribution hub for gravel, rocks and sand from the mine near Granite Falls. It’s also dealing with the state Department of Ecology, which sent a violation warning letter this month because the yard has no permit to discharge stormwater and wastewater.

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The yard opened early last year in unincorporated Snohomish County, leading to complaints from Fairmount teachers and parents next door. The yard’s owner has mostly denied the claims about noise and dust, sending a “cease-and-desist” letter to the school’s principal last month.

Fairmount was built in 1952 and shares its campus near Paine Field with Pathfinder Kindergarten Center, which opened in 2017. Together, the two Mukilteo School District schools serve about 1,000 students.

The property where the yard is located was previously a vacant lot with vegetation. Now trucks load and unload gravel, sand and rocks about 50 feet from Fairmount, separated from some classrooms and play areas by a driveway and a chain-link fence. Piles of material rise high above the ground.

Teachers have reported “loud bangs” from the gravel yard disrupting their classes and dust forcing them to keep their windows closed, even during hot weather. They’ve also reported coughing, dirty snot, bloody noses and headaches, worrying those could be related to dust and fumes from the yard.

Most Fairmount students qualify for free lunch and half speak a language other than English at home, Principal Bente Klatt has pointed out, suggesting that a school in a more wealthy area might get more help from authorities.

In a statement Thursday, spokesperson Diane Bradford said the Mukilteo School District is “relieved the county is taking this situation seriously.”

“We are hopeful that any next steps will address our concerns so that students and staff can focus on learning in a healthy environment,” she said.

Tory Kartchner, president of the local teachers union, said stopping work at the yard should “make a material difference for my members.”

“My members will be able to do their job, which is to teach kids,” he said. “You don’t teach kids in a construction site. You can’t have these kind of things going on next to a place where you’re trying to teach kids phonics.”

The county issued an “illegal business” violation notice at the yard in May 2023 after receiving a public complaint in April 2023. Although the property’s zoning is “Business Park,” a category that allows some industrial activities, the yard was operating without permits and had undergone no environmental review.

Rather than shut the yard down immediately, officials directed the owner to apply for permits by September and discussed noise and dust mitigation measures that the yard could take. The officials subsequently extended the yard’s compliance date to December 2023 and then February 2024 so the owner could complete “studies, plans and applications.”

In a Feb. 9 email to Klatt, Akers from OMA Construction said the yard’s permit application would include a mitigation plan, including the construction of an 18-foot “noise wall.” Visits to the yard by Puget Sound Clean Air Agency inspectors have resulted in no violations, he added.

“We don’t believe we have been omitting any dust from our operations as we have a compliance monitor and mitigation specialist onsite for every hour we are operating, but nonetheless, the wall should completely block any potential dust from blowing toward the school in full,” Akers wrote to Klatt, later clarifying he meant “emitting” instead of “omitting.”

The gravel yard submitted its applications for a land disturbing activity permit and for site-plan approval to the county last Wednesday.

The yard needs an environmental determination before it can obtain a water-discharge permit, according to the Department of Ecology’s Feb. 5 warning letter, which asked the yard to explain how it would prevent discharges in the meantime. The yard has been pumping its wheel-wash water into tanks and has been recirculating stormwater in a pond, Akers responded.

Teachers previously reported the yard being used to store demolition debris in addition to gravel, but that’s no longer happening, the yard has said. So it doesn’t need a solid-waste handling permit, officials have determined.

When The Seattle Times initially reported earlier this month about the cease-and-desist letter that an attorney for the yard sent to Fairmount’s principal, the yard didn’t return requests for comment. In an email last week, Akers said The Times “omitted critical information and misrepresented” the letter.

The letter objected not only to the school’s complaints about noise and dust but also to complaints about marijuana smoking and a broken fence; the yard’s employees weren’t responsible for those things, Akers said.