Last week, The Spotlight published a story examining the surge of dirt- and gravel-hauling trucks in South Columbia County. Undoubtedly most of our readers have noticed the veritable convoy of such trucks traveling Highway 30 or waiting outside Scappoose Sand and Gravel to dump or pick up a load.

The driving force for the trucks, as we reported, is another wave of construction occurring at Intel’s D1X fabrication plant in Hillsboro, just over Cornelius Pass Road.

For several reasons the trucks are a very welcome sight. They signify an increase in regional construction and investment. They promise the creation of family-wage jobs at the Intel plant once it is completed — a truth that should factor large in Columbia County considering Intel’s convenient access. Many of the trucking outfits — especially the smaller, independent owner-operator variety — have Scappoose listed as a base of operations, signaling that local jobs have been created to fill the demand. Any job creation is appreciated and points to Columbia County’s participation in the broader economic recovery.

On the flipside are questions about whether the public is receiving appropriate compensation by way of the county’s depletion fee ordinance and whether the trucks pose a danger to local motorists.

To the first point, county voters in 1990 passed an ordinance intended to compensate its residents for the permanent removal of one of Columbia County’s most valuable — and nonrenewable — resources: aggregate gravel. The initial ordinance resulted in a fee of 10 cents per ton for extracted rock. In 1996, the ordinance was amended in two significant ways — it raised the fee from 10 cents to 15 cents per ton, and it implemented a transportation fee, which is a fee levied on natural resource suppliers located outside of the county who transport their product to a destination located within Columbia County.

The idea behind the transportation fee was it would level the playing field for in-county providers of certain natural resources, including aggregate rock, so that locally based suppliers would remain competitive when bidding on construction projects occurring inside the county limits.

The county has not taken a proactive stance on enforcing the transportation fee — in fact, the county commissioners in the past have taken steps to establish a legal opinion that they can interpret and execute the depletion fee as they see fit, including taking no action on it at all.

Regarding the depletion fee, rock miners, including locally based outfits and large outside corporations, are being asked to self-regulate and report to the county how much rock tonnage they remove and then to self-assess a per-ton fee for payment to the county.

There is no way to know whether the companies are honest in their reporting, however. It is 100 percent on the honor system, so in essence it is similar to asking the affected companies to make voluntary payments — to tap into their profit potential — when there is little to no risk of being penalized for not paying such a tax.

County officials have said there is no money available to employ a person to regulate the depletion fee, and hence have largely abandoned efforts to enforce it.

Still, this year county officials anticipate collecting $383,613 in depletion fee revenue — a source not available to other counties. That is a boon and helps offset losses in other areas. Accurate or not, it’s a figure that divides out to 2.6 million tons of rock removed from the county.

To the second point — safety — we were alarmed two weeks ago when our newspaper delivery driver, Tom Kerr, had been waiting at the intersection of Maple Street and Highway 30 in Scappoose when a gravel truck passed him on Highway 30 and, almost immediately afterward, a rock the size of an apple crashed through the driver’s side rear window of his Jeep SUV. Had there been a slight adjustment in the rock’s trajectory that angled it through the front driver’s side window, it’s fair to speculate Kerr could have been seriously injured or even killed.

Kerr was unable to get a clear fix on the gravel truck, which by that time had motored farther down the highway. He noted it had the orange markings of a Knife River truck. Without definitive proof, however, the insurance provider for Knife River denied Kerr’s claim.

During the same week, reports came into The Spotlight about a gravel-hauling truck that blew through a red light in Scappoose and, as one of our staff members eye-witnessed, a truck that turned from Highway 30 onto Joe’s Drive in Scappoose — the truck driver actually used the lane reserved for traffic to make a right-only turn from Joe’s Drive onto Highway 30, and was travelling at a fairly high rate of speed. It was a dangerous move and fortunately the lane for oncoming traffic on Joe’s Drive was vacant.

There are benefits to the presence of gravel trucks — jobs being among the greatest — but we equally expect the mine operators to maintain honesty and integrity in their reporting, and for the haulers to foremost ensure the safety of their operations so that innocent bystanders don’t become casualties of the D1X frenzy.

Contract Publishing

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