Saturday, March 2, 2013

SB5805, Pit to Pier, Gravel and Landslides

This post provides some observations on the proposed pit to pier project in Jefferson County. I have had no involvement with this project in favor or opposed. But I am and have been very interested in the geology of the area.

A proposed bill in the Washington State Senate SB 5805 has a general goal of speeding up the regulatory process for commodity transportation projects. John Stark at the Bellingham Herald has provided coverage on the proposed bill HERE.  It has some business support and union support. Sponsors are claiming the proposal has nothing to do with the coal terminal proposal at Cherry Point in Whatcom County and cite the proposed Pit To Pier project on Hood Canal as the driver for the bill. Indeed this sort of bill has been put forward a number of times over the past number of years but has never gotten as far in the legislative process. Regardless, speeding up pier proposals is an alarming thing to coal export opponents.

So what is the Pit To Pier project? Just west of the Hood Canal Bridge is a massive sand and gravel deposit. The deposit was mined initially to supply the local highway construction and the Hood Canal Bridge construction. In the late 1990s mining in the area expanded with a fair bit trucked over the Hood Canal Bridge and down to Poulsbo and Bremerton.

Mine site
Hood Canal Bridge in upper right
Main mine is in upper center

I am not entirely sure exactly how the deposit formed, but it appears to be in part related to a big glacial meltwater ouflow route associated with the retreating glacial ice during the late stages of the last glacial period and there are some nuances of how the gravel was moved and deposited that lead to significant portions of the deposit being very high quality material. Its a huge deposit that extends way beyond the existing mine area. From a gravel mining resource perspective this deposit is big.

The deposit has some other great aspects. It is located right next to a highway and it is located within an area that is nearly entirely commercial forest land and hence limited impact to nearby homes. The down side of the deposit is that it is a long truck haul to the market locations where the gravel would be in demand. (Disclaimer - I have done some market assessments for other gravel deposits within part of the market area of this deposit.)

The Pit To Pier concept would reduce transportation costs enormously and create opportunities to greatly expand the market area of this deposit. If the sand and gravel can be loaded onto barges near the deposit the market area would included port locations throughout the Salish Sea and likely even to other west coast locations. By example: a construction site in Seattle will need gravel, but getting gravel into a urban area via truck is a huge cost and the mine sites via truck are a long way away.

In 2002 Fred Hill Materials the owner of the deposit applied for constructing a conveyor belt system that would transport sand and gravel to a pier on Hood Canal a couple of miles south of the pit area. At about the same time the company applied to expand the Mineral Resource Overlay designation to 6,240 acres (yes, it is a big deposit).

Topo map of proposed conveyor route 

Proposed conveyor route and pier location in application
The combination of a very large gravel mine area with a pier for shipping has generated some opposition. Jefferson County did grant an expansion of the mineral overlay expansion of 690 acres. Counties are required under the Growth Management Act to consider construction aggregate supply. In general the Growth Management Hearings Board has been very deferential to counties in how this is done. Overall Jefferson County has a fairly straight forward process and does not have a shortage of gravel. This deposit could serve part of the county, but the bulk of it will be and has been exported out of the county.

The pier part of the project has not progressed much thus far. An EIS contractor was selected but thus far very little work has been done on the EIS and the original proponent Fred Hill Materials sold the pit and just last year entered bankruptcy. The pit is now owned by another gravel company. A quick look at the Jefferson County permit center for the pier property shows no activity since 2007 and even that more recent activity was minor. Based on the lack of study and progress on this project, it does seem baseless to blame opposition to slowing the pier project. What I suspect is that pier proponents see the writing on the wall that it is going to be very difficult to get this project through the permit process without a break via state legislation.

While the gravel deposits and gravel market issues as well as the policy are of some interest to me, the conveyor belt route and pier location is an area I have been interested in long before this scheme was proposed. The proposed conveyor route and pier are located in an area of deep-seated landslides.

LiDAR image of conveyor and pier location
Click to enlarge - the conveyor would cross parcel 721191001 and 721194002
Note very large slide complex extending from shore to northwest of Thorndyke Road
The entire shore area is underlain by deep-seated failures
The LiDAR image shows some very obvious deep-seated landslide complex systems. The very large deep-seated landslide complex on the upper right of the image had significant movement in 1998 severely damaging Thorndyke Road and numerous deep-seated failures as well as shallow surface slides took place all along this reach of shoreline. Deep-seated slide movement took place on the lower end of the proposed conveyor route. Portions of the deep-seated sliding in the area had slope movement with as much as 20 feet of offset. Hundreds of feet of the beach in this area was uplifted as the deep-seated rotational failure took place.

It is hard to imagine that the applicant was not aware of the slope stability problems in this area. I suppose slope failures could be worked around in some manner, and if the slide area reactivates, which it will, the damage could be repaired. That said, this slide complex is not mapped in a manner consistent with the hazard on the usual slope stability and landslide maps of the area.

2000 Aerial showing recent shallow sliding as well as a deep seated scarp in upper center

2006 aerial showing the wide tide flat - the pier will need to be 1,000 feet long across the tide flat

I was very interested in this landslide complex when it moved in 1998 and made several visits to the slide area that year.

Uplifted beach and houses

Uplifted beach. Proposed pier location is a bit beyond person on beach

Slide area at the pier property

Exposed clay from older beach uplifts
View of rupture and uplifted beach (gravel) with older silt/clay unit underneath also uplifted
I took the pictures above in 1998 well before the proposed pier idea. My purpose was simply to document the deep-seated landslide and uplifted beach. Uplifted beaches get eroded very rapidly so I was keen on getting some pictures of this slide. I gave a talk on this landslide back in 1998.

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