Concerned that recent landslide activity on Burdoin Mountain directly east of Bingen poses a hazard to the public, the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has closed the SDS Lumber Co. gravel mining operation in the area.
On Feb. 4, the DNR issued an "Emergency Order to Suspend Surface Mining" on the hillside, effective immediately.
The DNR order contained three specific points: 1) SDS is prohibited from further mining or crushing of rock without written consent of DNR; 2) SDS must submit a geo-technical report assessing the condition of the slope and offering alternatives to obtain slope stability; and 3) SDS must submit to DNR an acceptable plan for removing the immediate danger posed by slope instability.
For approximately 40 years, SDS has used the Burdoin Mountain site to mine basalt, which provides aggregate used for road building. Following a series of dramatic land movements on Feb. 2, however, DNR sent geologists to investigate the site. The geologists found that the hillside was actively moving, with soil and boulders rolling down the hill.
The slide area was at about the 1,200-1,300 elevation of Burdoin Mountain, which tops out at about 2,250 feet.
SDS has 30 days to appeal the DNR order. If there is no appeal, the DNR order closing the gravel mining area becomes the final order.
Frank Backus, chief forester for SDS Lumber Co., said SDS would comply with the DNR.
"Obviously there is a problem. We'll hire a geologist and figure out how to resolve it," Backus said.
Backus added that SDS representatives planned to meet with DNR officials this week to try to come up with a resolution to the quandary, and said SDS had made no decision on whether to appeal the closure order.
"It's an unfortunate situation, and we'll come up with a plan to deal with it. We're hoping the meeting resolves that," Backus said. "If there is no agreement, we'll probably appeal."
Backus noted that SDS does not currently have another source for gravel.
According to DNR officials, the criteria for issuing an "Emergency Order to Suspend Surface Mining" includes a determination that the mining activity has "created a situation involving an immediate danger to the public health, safety, welfare, or environment that requires immediate action."
The order claimed that debris could threaten State Route 14: "A 5.5 acre area of landslide debris is moving toward the working face and will impact the working quarry floor and potentially the surrounding area containing multiple homes and State Highway 14," read an excerpt.
John Bromley, DNR's surface mine reclamation program manager, said geologists plan to monitor the site closely.
On Feb. 2, debris rolling off the hillside led to the temporary evacuation of about 20 residents of the Guided Path transitional housing shelter in Bingen, which is near the base of the area being mined. The evacuation lasted from Monday afternoon to Tuesday afternoon, with evacuees being housed in hotels in Hood River during the closure.
Linda Schneider, executive director of Washington Gorge Action Programs, which operates the Guided Path shelter, said she thought the closure of the gravel pit was wise.
"It does make me feel a bit more comfortable," Schneider said. "From Guided Path on Monday (Feb. 2), it sounded like rain almost -- it was constantly coming down. We didn't want to spend a day and a night worrying, so we got everybody off the site. And we were concerned about what would happen if it started to rain or if we got a heavy frost."
Schneider said the hillside seems stable for now, but admitted there is still concern about the situation.
"We haven't really seen any more rocks come down since Tuesday morning. Everybody is back [at the Guided Path facility], but everybody is looking up the hill all the time," Schneider explained. "I think everybody is very cautious and continuing to watch it closely."
Schneider praised SDS officials for staying in close contact with them throughout the event.
"SDS has been keeping us informed and really cooperating with us, and we appreciate that," she said.
In its Feb. 4 order, DNR inspectors also alleged that "mining has occurred outside the permit boundary in violation of the approved reclamation plan ... this mining has impacted the integrity of the mined slope, creating a steep mined face that has failed outside the permit boundary," read an excerpt. "Mining outside the north permit boundary has undermined the slope, the slope has failed, triggering a landslide that threatens public safety."
Backus flatly denied DNR's claim that SDS had mined outside of the company's permit area.
"The only issue we have with the shutdown order -- we agree to that and will get a geologist out here -- was the fact they say we operated outside the permit area," Backus explained. "That is not true. All of our documentation since the permit was issued in 1972 shows we never operated outside the boundaries. We're adamant that we did not violate the conditions of our permit."
Backus cautioned the public to stay away from the site.
"People need to stay away from there," he said. "The gate is locked and there are `No Trespassing' signs posted. People need to stay well back from the edge."
DNR regulates about 1,100 permitted surface mines in Washington under the Surface Mining Act.