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News / Northwest

WA’s AG, health officials raise questions about gravel yard by school

By Daniel Beekman, The Seattle Times
Published: March 26, 2024, 7:47am

SEATTLE — Washington state’s attorney general and health department are raising concerns about a gravel yard that’s been operating directly next to an existing elementary school in unincorporated Snohomish County.

Such officials don’t normally get involved in local land-use matters, but in this case they’re weighing in, putting extra pressure on the county to scrutinize a permit application the yard submitted last month.

The yard near Everett has been mired in controversy for months, with school leaders urging the county to address complaints from teachers, students and parents about disruptive noise, truck exhaust and potentially unhealthy dust associated with the distribution yard for gravel, sand and other materials.

The saga started when the 2.7-acre yard opened last spring without having obtained permits and without having undergone environmental reviews. The discord grew in February, when the county issued an emergency stop-work order at the site by Fairmount Elementary School and Pathfinder Kindergarten Center. They’re part of the Mukilteo School District.

Now the neighborhood dispute has become a political headache for county leaders, whose priorities are being publicly tested. As they sought to balance business and student interests, the situation deteriorated to the point where an attorney for the gravel yard sent a cease-and-desist letter to Fairmount’s principal in January, warning her to stop making complaints.

“The Applicant has demonstrated that the County should expect continued non-compliance, intransigence and disregard of neighboring communities,” officials from state Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s environmental protection division wrote in a letter to the county last week, questioning the possible effects on student health, air quality, noise pollution and wetlands.

“We do not commonly submit comments on county permit applications, but the Applicant’s conduct at this site in the last year is also uncommon,” they added, urging the county to require more information from the yard’s owner.

In a separate letter to the county last week, an official from the state Department of Health’s environmental public health division also questioned the yard’s application, requesting more information about impacts. There are “clear environmental justice concerns” at play, partly because the schools are also subject to air pollution from Paine Field and because many of their students are immigrants and refugees, the official wrote.

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“Based on the information currently provided … the most certain way to avoid health harms to this community and the children of Fairmount Elementary School and Pathfinder Kindergarten is for this project to operate elsewhere, not adjacent to a property with a school, child care center or other sensitive population,” the Department of Health official concluded.

The gravel yard’s owner is Maple Valley-based OMA Construction, which uses the site in coordination with its Mountain Loop Mine, near Granite Falls.

OMA Construction didn’t respond to requests for comment about the letters from the state officials. In the past, the company has mostly denied the school district’s allegations about noise and dust from the yard, saying any impacts are being mitigated and promising to build a noise wall.

Last Friday, a spokesperson for the district said it was validating to see state officials raise concerns about health issues and school-day interruptions. In a letter to the county last week, an attorney for the district called the yard “fundamentally incompatible” with its surroundings and the site’s “Business Park” zoning, even if the county were to impose mitigation requirements.

“The bottom line is that the District believes that there is no way for the proposed project to operate in its current location without a significant and continuous adverse impact to School operations,” that letter said, asking the county to work with the yard’s owner to find an alternative property.

On Monday, a spokesperson for Snohomish County Planning and Development Services said it would take all the letters into consideration.

The stop-work order issued by the county last month accused the yard of zoning and noise violations. OMA Construction has appealed the order, claiming the company has committed no violations and noting that county officials last year said the yard could be allowed in Business Park zoning.

Earlier this month, the school district accused OMA Construction of flouting the county’s stop-work order by continuing some operations at the yard. The company is still using the site to park trucks full of material but the trucks are no longer being loaded and unloaded there, the company replied.

The county posted an amended order last week, with clarifying details. It says “the idling, unloading, loading, driving/passby, and general operation of dump trucks, loaders and other heavy construction equipment” must cease.