Futurewire Newsletter

Conflict in King County’s forested foothills: Residential development on toxic mines

by Greg Wingard, Peter Rimbos, & Brock Howell

King County is a beautiful place. Thriving cities are nestled close to the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, with stunning views across Lake Washington and Puget Sound to the Olympics and Mount Rainier.

In part because of this beauty, and in part because of a strong economy powered by software developers, aerospace engineering, biomedical industries, and international retail headquarters, King County’s population continues to grow significantly. This growth naturally leads to the same tension that nearly every county faces: whether to accommodate the growth through infill and redevelopment or through new subdivisions outside the designated urban growth area.

For the last 20 years, thanks to the state Growth Management Act and visionary local elected leaders, King County has done a relatively good job of limiting the conversion of our precious farms, forests, and rural areas. In fact, over the last decade, while the population of King County’s urban areas has increased, fewer people are now living in the rural areas. And the County’s urban growth areas still have plenty of capacity to house the projected population growth of 440,000 by 2040.

In large part, this success has been due to the team-effort advocacy of Futurewise and local activists like the Middle Green River Coalition, the Sierra Club, and all three rural Unincorporated Area Councils. Last year during the 2012 major update to the county comprehensive plan, we were able to stop four bad proposals to allow big box stores and sprawl on farms, forests, and rural lands near the cities of Woodinville, Covington, Sammamish, and Snoqualmie. And this fight was not much different from the years proceeding.

Which brings us to the conflict brewing in King County’s foothills.

Reserve Silica

In rural southeast King County, there is an old 402-acre mining site surrounded by a ridge. Much of this forested ridge -- more than 1,500 acres – is protected by a conservation easement, serving as an open space buffer to the nearby City of Black Diamond. Other surrounding acreage is part of King County’s Forest Production District, forestland designated for protection for long-term commercial interest.

Mining is an important economic activity. But it’s been a long time since mining has occurred and now the current property owner – Reserve Silica Corporation -- has significant environmental liabilities to clean up the property. But instead of restoring this property to forest land, as was originally required, the Reserve Silica Corporation wants to build homes on this rural mining site at an urban intensity.

And it appears they have already got the County Council to agree to a backdoor, fast-track process to sign off on it.

Besides being in the middle of the forest miles and miles from where urban development should occur, decades of mining, processing, and landfill have left the 402-acre site toxic. The Industrial Mining Products (IMP), puchased the the site from the Smith Brothers Mining Company in 1968, and IMP used the used the site to manufacture, and sell crushed slag from ASARCO to create road ballast, roofing grit, sand blasting grit, and feedstock for cement companies.

In addition to the arsenic content in the slag, the state health department sampled ASARCO’s slag and detected contamination with radium. Eventually the state Department of Ecology in 1988 added the property to the list of known contaminated sites under the Model Toxics Control Act. In making its listing, Ecology said it suspected metals and corrosive waste in groundwater, surface water, and the soil. But amazingly Ecology never followed-up with a further assessment of the hazards.

For a short while after an ASARCO smelter closed in 1985, IMP continued to process old slag from a Montana copper smelter. IMP then sold the business to L-Bar, another company that specialized in producing products from hazardous waste. In 1990, L-Bar was sold in turn to the Reserve Silica Corporation, who continues to own the property and business to this day.

The mining activities left huge pits, and so the Reserve Silica Corporation’s main business activities as of late has been filling those unlined pits with hundreds of thousands of tons of cement kiln dust, soil from tunneling activities in Seattle, and other industrial and commercial wastes.

Ecology required Reserve Silica to measure contaminants including the pH and arsenic levels of the site in for the last decade. The data show that the pH and arsenic far exceeded legal levels. In addition, in December 2012, Ecology observed that the Reserve Silica Corporation was discharging turbid water into a wetland at 20-times the permissible level.

A Toxic “Demonstration Project”

It is into this toxic landscape, and with this poor pattern of environmental concern, that the Reserve Silica Corporation would like to build a small urban village, ostensibly where families with children would live.

Last year was a big year for land use planning in King County. Under the Growth Management Act, counties must conduct regular major update of their comprehensive plans, the documents that must meet state goals and requirements and that serve as the framework for local development regulations and zoning.

King County conducts its major update every 4 years, and in 2012 the County Council completed one of the most extensive reviews of the plan since 1993. One significant accomplishment was adding more extensive climate change policies.

But as the process drew to a close toward the end of the year, the Reserve Silica Corporation began working in overdrive behind the scenes to change the land use designation of their property from mining to rural residential, allowing approximately 50 homes to be constructed on the site.

The Corporation’s lobbyist then sweetened its proposal by offering to focus all the development into a single corner of the property, essentially creating an urban village right next to a toxic landfill.

But with the County Council’s decision just a single weekend away, the Reserve Silica Corporation still did not have the votes to approve its proposal. So it tried a new tactic: get an amendment to the Comprehensive Plan that would approve the re-designation to rural residential as a “demonstration project” in 2013.

King County has a policy against considering any change to the designated urban growth area outside the four-year major update cycle. The Reserve Silica Corporation’s "demonstration project" would violate the spirit of the County's policy against such major land use changes outside the four-year cycle, and the rural residential redesignation would violate the County's policy against urban densities in rural areas.

However, with councilmembers’ votes on other issues uncertain, the demonstration project got rolled into the sausage-making of local politics. It was unfortunately easily approved, 8-1.

Isn’t Clustering a Good Idea?

The Reserve Silica Corporation’s proposal had support, in part, because it was messaged on a generally good concept.

Even under the Growth Management Act, every county across Washington State still allow higher levels of density than appropriate to match the true character of rural lands and to ensure ongoing farming for generations without nearby adverse land uses. When done right, clustering development can protect surrounding rural areas and farmlands.

The Reserve Silica Corporation’s proposal is a far cry from clustering “done right.”

First off, the Reserve Silica Corporation’s 402-acres are surrounded by protected forestlands. The site was originally forestland and was converted for another natural resource industry, mining and mining-related activities, for the last 40 years. The appropriate move is to re-designate the property back to forest land, a designation with a zoned maximum density of 1 unit per 80 acres in King County --- not the 1 unit per 10 acres that the Corporation seeks with a rural residential designation.

Reserve Silica’s proposal wouldn’t be clustering at all. It would result in an 8-fold increase of existing allowed development --- a density inconsistent with what’s appropriate for the property itself and with the surrounding forestland.

Secondly, much of the property is virtually undevelopable with the huge landfill pits and contaminated soil and groundwater. King County should not give the Corporation essentially additional development rights by allowing it to build elsewhere on its property.

Lastly, the proposed urban cluster of 50 homes would be far away from centers of employment and services found in Southeast King County cities like Kent and Renton. As we look to supporting affordability and addressing climate change, promoting greater reliance on cars and trucks is unacceptable.

So while clustering can work in some places when the right metrics are met, the Reserve Silica Corporation’s proposal just doesn’t measure up.

Where We Are Now

Luckily, it’s still unclear whether the demonstration project will move forward.

In adopting the demonstration project, the King County Council directed the County Executive to establish a process to approve the redesignation of the 402-acres from mining to rural residential – setting a poor precedent for back-door, fast-tracking of major land use redesignations outside of King County’s 4-year major update cycle for its comprehensive plans.

However, for the redesignation to proceed forward, County Executive Dow Constantine will need to establish the process, something he has not yet done.

During the 2012 major update, Executive Constantine’s administration testified against the Reserve Silica’s proposal. Executive Constantine wanted the mining site to be returned to a forestry designation, consistent with the surrounding properties and the natural resource legacy of the property.

Given that Executive Constantine might not establish a redesignation process, it’s possible that the redesignation may never happen. However, the County Council – who voted 8-to-1 in favor of having the Executive establish a redesignation process – could grow weary of the Executive’s slow pace, and they could more affirmatively establish their own process.

But many councilmembers may be rethinking their votes. Until just a month ago, many of the councilmembers were not made aware of the site’s toxic history. As a result, the council may be less willing to support the wishes of the Reserve Silica Corporation.

So we are left with an uncertain future for the Reserve Silica mining site. With this uncertain future, we remain committed to making sure that King County Council does not become confused between good development with clustered density near transit, jobs and basic services within our urban growth centers and bad development disguised as “good” simply because it is clustered and converts a toxic waste site to a better use. In 2013, we will continue to keep you updated on the outcome of this proposal.

Written by Greg Wingard of the Middle Green River Coalition, Peter Rimbos of the Sierra Club, and Brock Howell of Futurewise

Want to make a difference on this issue and help protect Southeast King County from bad sprawl?
Email the King County Council and ask them to rescind their 2012 comprehensive plan amendment (I-2 to Policy I-203) that established the Reserve Silica Demonstration Project.


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