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New Whatcom rules would consider environmental impacts of mining sooner

In a move favored by environmentalists and the neighbors of Whatcom County mines, the County Council is finalizing rules that would require an earlier review of the impacts of mining on the site itself and the surrounding area.

The rules come to a public hearing before the council at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 3, at the county courthouse, 311 Grand Ave, Bellingham.

Getting approval to mine in the county is a two-step process. The review of environmental impacts, which includes possible groundwater contamination, noise and added truck traffic, would move from the second to the first step under a proposal put forward in 2014 by council members Barbara Brenner and Carl Weimer.

Instead of waiting until a mineral company applies to mine the land, the environmental review would come when the company takes the preliminary step of applying to designate the site for mining — what’s called a mineral resource land designation.

“I think it’s really important to move the environmental assessment up earlier so people know what’s going on in their neighborhoods,” Weimer said after an earlier public hearing on the rule changes, on Jan. 27.

The designation is not a right to mine the property but rather sets the land aside so it isn’t used in a way that would be incompatible with mining — to build houses, for example.

The new rules also call for notifying neighbors who live up to 2,000 feet from the proposed mine’s boundaries instead of the current 1,000 feet. Also, when a mining company applies to extract minerals — typically sand, gravel or rock — review of the application would include a public hearing rather than only requiring county staff approval.

Brenner argued that when the county allows a mining designation, it creates an expectation that the second step of approving mining on the land is automatic. Yet council has not had a thorough environmental review in front of it when it has considered mining designations. Council members have rejected the two requests they have received for mining designations since 2006.

“I can’t personally justify supporting something when I don’t have the information I need to make a decision where I know people, once they get their designation, they’re counting on being able to get their permit,” Brenner said on Jan. 27.

Council member Sam Crawford on Jan. 27 said he didn’t support the rule changes because they made it too difficult to mine in the county. He said the County Council should take over the task of finding and designating mineral-rich lands for mining, so companies can go directly to the second step of applying for the permit. Crawford resigned from the council effective Sunday, March 1, to take on increased responsibilities at his workplace.

Even without Crawford, a majority of the council agrees that government designation of mining lands is preferable.

“That’s the ultimate goal, for the county to make those determinations,” Brenner said. “Then have people come in for permits rather than this double process.”

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