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Drive brings surface minings effects into focus

An afternoon drive through Scappoose’s farmlands and dike-protected properties east of Highway 30 with Fred Bernet is not only a genuinely enjoyable experience, it’s eye-opening and educational, too.

Bernet moved to Scappoose in 1946, having briefly lived on Sauvie Island before then and, prior to that, having been born and raised in Tillamook as the son of Swedish immigrants who worked the dairy trade.

Bernet’s home peers from an elevated patch of fill that brings it level with the top of the Multnomah Channel levee. It’s from that position Bernet has been able to watch as barge after barge loaded with river-washed gravel extracted from one of the numerous mines in and around Scappoose makes its way up the Multnomah Channel to Portland.

Likewise, Bernet is at a vantage point to observe many of the properties the Multnomah Channel levee protects; if it were not for the levee, all of the 5,000 acres it shields from the Multnomah Channel waters would be re-classified as unprotected floodplain. Such a classification would restrict many homeowners’ — some who live north of Scappoose High School on popular neighborhood streets — ability to build on their property and would result in the need to pay expensive flood insurance.

As anyone who has ever driven the loop — involving Honeyman, Columbia and Dike roads — can attest, the unincorporated areas east of Scappoose offer sweeping panoramic views of wooded plains and rich farmland.

Equally, however, it offers a blunt look at Scappoose’s largest commodity: aggregate gravel.

Overfill — dirt scraped from the surface to access rock just beneath it — is frequently pushed against the roadside, forming a berm that masks the mining activity behind it. In some cases, the berm obscures the aftereffects of mining, such as the massive stagnant pond just north of Scappoose Industrial Airpark that is bordered by Honeyman and Ring-a-Ring roads.

The promise for increased mining activity is omnipresent. The area protected by the levee also offers some of the highest-value aggregate rock in Oregon. This fact has not escaped area farmers, some who are dealing with the economic rigors of farming and are recognizing that mining is one potential use for otherwise protected farmland.

In July 2011, the Spotlight reported that a Mexico-based cement company, called Cemex, was exploring purchase of a 700-acre farm located along the Multnomah Channel. Successful sale of the farm would likely result in an application to mine it.

The authority for siting mines typically rests at the county level, and Columbia County officials have historically been accommodating of mining interests.

We are not convinced, however, that Columbia County residents are receiving just value for the depletion of rock via aggregate mines, which fully compromises future uses for the land. We would like to see a review of the county’s depletion fee system, including a substantive audit and a stronger push to ensure mine operators are in compliance with the depletion fee ordinance.

This year, the county stands to receive $383,000 in depletion fees. That’s a small dollar amount, in our view, compared with the detrimental effect mining has on the local landscape and on the county’s roads — yet another all-too-easy observation during our drive with Bernet.