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Residents in unincorporated area lament sound, vibrations from Eagle Star Rock

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Harold Olsen points to a map to show where he hears loud blasts from a nearby rock mine in St. Helens. Olsen was among a group of neighbors in St. Helens who say the mine operations recent blasting has been alarming and disruptive."It shakes the house," Chuck McCartney told Columbia County commissioners Wednesday, describing the loud rattles and booms emanating from a nearby gravel mine.

McCartney and a handful of neighbors in St. Helens say recent blasts from Eagle Star Rock Mine on Hankey Road have been loud and disruptive, shaking and vibrating their homes.

"The windows and chimney shake," McCartney said. "The chimney starts throwing dust off it. My wife, if she's in the house, the blast scares the hell out of her."

Other neighbors gave similar accounts, saying recent mine blasts — one on May 18, and another a few weeks later — were so loud and powerful, they resembled an earthquake inside their homes.

"I can definitely tell you I can hear it and feel it at times, and I've never been notified," Harold Olsen, who also lives nearby, told commissioners.

Another neighbor asked if the mining company could just reduce the size of each blast.

Mike Wilkins, owner of Eagle Star Rock, said nearby residents receive notifications before a big blast is scheduled to take place, and upon request, can have an instrument placed at their homes to measure the blast's noise impacts.

"We try to get at least 18,000 to 23,000 tons a shot," Wilkins explained. "It's not always the same. A lot of times if you do a big shot, it isn't cost effective for me because you get all this [debris] the size of your table."

Wilkins estimated his company, which contracts with another company to perform the blasting, commissions about 16 mine blasts a year. The number has gone up recently, Wilkins said, because the economy has improved, increasing gravel de-mand.

While county land use laws do exist to reduce impacts to neighborhoods from nearby industrial uses, the county does not currently have a noise ordinance related to surface mining.

Similarly, the state's noise ordinance for mining hasn't been enforced since the 1990s.

"Even though the state has adopted standards, they opted in 1991, due to budgetary concerns, to opt out of enforcing those standards," Todd Dugdale, the county's Land Development Services director, explained during an informal meeting Wednesday evening. "What that meant was they basically passed off any enforcement of those rules to local jurisdictions."

In 1991, Columbia County adopted its own noise control ordinance, but the ordinance specifically exempts "sounds caused by blasting activities," county documents indicate.

Even the Oregon Department of Geological and Mineral Industries, which issues permits for surface mining operations, doesn't have noise standards related to blasting deep into the ground for rock extraction, Dugdale said.

Without any ordinance to enforce, county commissioners weren't sure exactly what to do.

"I think that there is definitely more information that we need to gather before we can make a solid decision on anything," Commissioner Margaret Magruder noted.

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