Fearing that a tribal burial and cultural site will be desecrated by a proposed mining expansion on Yakima Ridge, the Yakama Nation is seeking a court order halting the project until a thorough cultural assessment is completed.
Granite Northwest seeks to expand mining from 26 acres to more than 160 acres on the north side of the ridge that divides Yakima and Selah.
Worried the expansion could disturb a tribal burial ground and cultural site, the tribe filed the lawsuit in May in Yakima County Superior Court. Defendants in the lawsuit are Yakima County, Granite Northwest and landowner Frank Rawley, who is leasing the land to Granite Construction, a subsidiary of Granite Northwest.
Under the 1855 treaty, the Yakamas retain much interest and hunting, fishing and other cultural rights in the 11-million acres of ceded land.
In the lawsuit, the tribe contends county officials failed to thoroughly consider the cultural significance of the area when issuing a conditional use permit allowing for the expansion. The complaint also accuses the mining company of failing to seek an archaeological site alteration and excavation permit after being told to do so by the state Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation.
“The Yakama Nation’s ancestors and cultural resources, including those within the burial ground, are vital to the Yakama Nation’s and its people’s continued physical and spiritual connection to their past and present culture, religion, history, territories, resources and their identities as Yakama members in ways that the English language cannot express,” the complaint said.
Also in the lawsuit, the tribe said county officials too quickly closed a window in which new information regarding the matter could be included. Because of that, a recent slide on the ridge and another slow-moving slide on Rattlesnake Ridge to the south couldn’t be entered into the record, the lawsuit said. Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita said the county stands by its decision in approving the project.
“Bottom line is we went through a process and the Yakama Nation is pursing their right through a lawsuit they’ve filed,” he said. “I think we stand by our position and have afforded everybody the opportunity through the guise of the law.”
Bellevue attorney Mark Quehrn, representing the mining company and Rawley, declined to comment on the matter, saying he would forward questions to the company, which didn’t immediately respond.
In an interview with the Yakima Herald-Republic in 2015, the company said it was running out of gravel at its current quarry and needed the expansion to meet a growing demand for road and other projects throughout the region.
The expansion project has been in the works for more than three years. Over that time, the tribe has opposed the project, which landed it before a Yakima County Hearing Examiner, who upheld the conditional use permit on the company’s promise that it would seek an archaeological site alteration and excavation permit before any expansion work would be conducted.
The tribe then appealed the matter to the county commissioners, who upheld the hearing examiner’s decision.
In the lawsuit, the tribe said county authorities concluded that mining operations could possibly have an impact on cultural sites along the ridge without conducting a thorough cultural or archaeological review.
The area once was a significant Yakama fishing village named Wanapine, with the talus slopes being tribal burial grounds.
Archaeologists in 1854 first identified and designated the historic site, which has been repeatedly documented and supported since, according to the lawsuit.
Last Friday, Yakima County Superior Court Judge Gayle Harthcock denied Rawley’s and the company’s motion to dismiss the case. She gave the county until Oct. 12 to submit the record of how the project was approved for judicial review, with a hearing scheduled on Dec. 13.