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Originally published January 6, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 6, 2009 at 8:19 AM

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Gregoire's help sought in Maury Island gravel battle

A group of state lawmakers are calling on Gov. Christine Gregoire to step into the fight over a gravel mine on Maury Island. Fourteen legislators sent a letter asking her to suspend and possibly overturn a state lease issued in early December that cleared the way for a major expansion of the mine.

Seattle Times environment reporter

A group of state lawmakers are calling on Gov. Christine Gregoire to step into the fight over a gravel mine on Maury Island in Puget Sound.

Fourteen legislators on Monday sent a letter asking her to suspend and possibly overturn a state lease issued in early December that cleared the way for a major expansion of the mine.

The appeal thrusts Gregoire into an issue that has prompted years of lawsuits and, most recently, a protest by hundreds of mine opponents this past weekend.

The lawmakers, led by Maury Island resident and longtime anti-mine activist, Democratic Rep. Sharon Nelson, say Gregoire has the power to temporarily stop, and go to court to overturn, the lease issued by outgoing Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland.

They point to a never-used provision of state ethics law enabling a governor to overturn state actions tainted by impropriety. It also allows the governor to suspend an action while the issue is investigated.

The lawmakers point to what they call Sutherland's "rushed" lease action in the waning days of his time heading the Department of Natural Resources, after he lost the election to Democrat Peter Goldmark.

"It's a serious issue as far as accountability by an outgoing elected official, and I believe it should be reviewed further," Nelson said.

She also pointed to two ethics complaints against Sutherland filed with the state Executive Ethics Board.

Those complaints allege Sutherland should have recused himself from involvement in the lease decision because the mining company, Glacier Northwest, gave $50,000 to a political committee working for his re-election.

Those complaints are under investigation, said Melanie de Leon, the ethics board's executive director.

Sutherland has said he authorized the lease after extensive review by his department, and that it contains strong environmental protections.

Marty Brown, the governor's legislative director, said he would talk with the state Attorney General's Office for guidance on the law.

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Environmental groups argue that the lease, which would enable a 305-foot dock to be built over a state aquatic reserve, could harm chinook salmon and endangered orcas. They are asking state and federal judges to overturn the lease and halt construction work.

A company official said the project has extensive environmental protections and has already gotten a number of government permits. Glacier Northwest's Pete Stoltz on Monday noted this lease application had been in the works for years.

"DNR didn't make this lease decision overnight," he said.

Natural Resources Department spokeswoman Patty Henson said this was a legal matter before the governor, not the department. Regarding the ethics complaints, Henson noted that Glacier's contributions were to an independent political committee not controlled by Sutherland.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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