The Port of Tacoma and the new owners of a Thurston County industrial tract once owned by the port have launched a legal attack against Thurston County and two environmental groups they say are illegally blocking use of the site as a gravel mine.
Both the port and Maytown Sand & Gravel Co. have asked the Lewis County Superior Court to reverse a decision by Thurston County Commissioners telling a county hearing examiner to reconsider a decision to extend a gravel mining permit on a site near Maytown.
The suit further asks the court to award the port up to $20 million in damages if the lengthy environmental review process makes mining the site financially impossible.
A group that has fought the port for years over the land’s use said the new suit was a thinly disguised attempt to use the port’s financial muscle to deplete citizens’ groups’ bank accounts.
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“It’s bad enough they’re suing Thurston County for simply following mandated procedures to review the mine,” said a statement issued by Friends of Rocky Prairie. “But to go after citizens’ groups, nonprofit organizations working to protect (a) valuable area of our county, is appalling.”
Friends of Rocky Prairie and the Black Hills Audubon Society were named as respondents in the suit.
The new suit, filed last Friday, is the latest skirmish in a years-long legal war over the site.
The Port of Tacoma bought the 745-acre site in 2006 for $21.25 million. The port wanted to turn the tract into a marshalling yard for long trains carrying containers to and from the port’s terminals and an associated logistics center.
But opponents argued the land was best suited for open space and a wildlife preserve. Through years of hearings and political battles, the opponents fought the port to a standstill. The port two years ago decided to market most of the land to outside developers instead of continuing the fight.
A year ago, it sold most of the site to Maytown Sand & Gravel on a contract that would pay the port both in cash and in gravel mined on the site. The site contains gravel deposits that could be used in construction.
The latest warfare has centered around the review of a mining permit issued five years ago. A county hearing examiner recommended earlier this year that the permit be extended, but commissioners asked the examiner to reconsider after conducting new studies.
The environmental groups contend the port missed deadlines imposed by the original permit and failed to follow up with monitoring studies. The port contends it acted properly.
The port’s attorneys contend that the Thurston County commissioners’ attempt to send the permit back to the hearing examiner for another look was not based on the law.
“The actions of county staff and the board have been motivated by politics rather than by the law and facts,” the suit contends. The suit maintains that the county has been working closely with Friends of Rocky Prairie spokeswoman Sharron Coontz in deciding how to proceed.
The commissioners, the suit alleges, received and read communications from Coontz regarding the permits before they acted as a quasi-judicial body reviewing the hearing examiner’s recommendations.
The commissioners’ action in delaying the permit could place the property’s sale in jeopardy, the suit contends.
Port spokeswoman Tara Mattina denied the assertion that the port was trying to financially cripple the citizen groups by filing suit. The port itself, records show, has spent more than $800,000 in legal fees and consultant costs fighting the environmental groups’ own appeals in the last year.
The Port of Olympia, which once had an agreement with the Port of Tacoma allowing it to develop the site, cancelled that agreement three years ago.
Olympia Port Commissioner George Barner, an opponent of the railyard and logistics center, said this week that citizens of both Pierce and Thurston counties should by upset.
“Thurston County citizens’ affairs are still being influenced by a port that claimed to have divested themselves of the property, and Pierce County citizens’ tax dollars are still supporting their port’s Maytown mistakes,” he said.
John Gillie: 253-597-8663