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A Lingering Threat

In the early days, Georgia-Pacific egregiously dumped anything they pleased into the Whatcom Waterway and Bellingham Bay. In the mid 1970's, when regulations were rapidly tightening, Georgia-Pacific demonstrated some very creative methods of disposing of their toxic wastes. The "Log Pond" became highly contaminated due to its proximity to the mercury-cell chlorine facility and "spill pond". Eventually, some of the most contaminated sediments were secretly dredged and dumped along Whatcom Creek - a fishing stream reserved for children - near Haskell Business Park. Later assays of the dumped material showed mercury concentrations to have significantly declined. G-P was expert at dumping where pollutants would "go away" - in ravines and old gravel pits.

GP admits to dumping this mercury into Bellingham Bay. The steep decline represents the onset of stricter regulation. It remains unclear what GP did with waste mercury after these "self-reported" discharges were claimed to have been diverted from the bay. One theory holds that wastes were used as "dust suppressants" on logging roads in G-P's timber holdings in the Lake Whatcom and Nooksack watersheds, creating a diffuse background level camouflage. GP may have heated these wastes in a "mercury recovery unit" they later described as effective at removing, but not at recovering mercury. Some say abandoned coal shafts may have been exploited for disposal of wastes. No official request has ever been made of GP to fully account for the untold tons of mercury brought into their chemical production in downtown Bellingham.

As regulations and scrutiny increased, G-P ran out of easy dumpsites. Citing prodigious waste loads, G-P actually "respectfully refused" a State request to cease and desist dumping in certain unregulated county landfills. Also a receiver of hazardous waste from Boeing and as far away as Ketchican, G-P now had to scramble to keep their operation going. In one letter, a mill manager tells State regulators that one outcome of new dumping restrictions could be the cessation of plant operations.


In 1976, they were discovered having illegally buried an estimated 12 tons of mercury on-site in what is now known as the Chem-Fix dump. State regulators were shocked at the action, but eventually only required G-P to cover the area with asphalt. This was the first official cover-up. You can read the CHEM-FIX COVER-UP documents.


Regulators took a liking to the cover-up "solution". After years of work on a Bellingham Bay Action plan, the first official action expenditure was yet another cover-up. The "Log Pond Remediation" involved dumping between one and nine feet of "clean" dredge spoils from the Swinomish Channel atop the poster child of Bellingham Bay toxic hotspots. The result looks good and functions well in the short-term. The approach is relatively inexpensive because it provides a place to dispose of unregulated dredging wastes while avoiding dredging and disposal costs for higher level wastes. It remains to be seen whether the soft, silty "cap" can withstand the force of waterborne objects, erosion of waves and tide, groundwater flows or penetration by plants and organisms.

Showing the depth of "cap" covering up the Log Pond "hotspot". Can a few feet of silt really protect human health and the environment from a potent, bio-accumulative neuro-toxin?


Nevertheless, GP is pushing hard for a "monitored natural recovery" of Bellingham Bay. It means they won't have to clean up their mess, instead leaving it hopefully hidden under a more recent layer of relatively clean sediment. The idea involves "capping" hotspots and letting glacial flour from the Nooksack River maintain and build a barrier. You can see a topical presentation on this strategy featuring GP's Chip Hilardes.

Regulators seem inclined to agree withy Chip. Somehow, while states across the nation are developing hazardous response protocols for broken mercury thermometers (containing one-tenth of a gram of mercury), Washington regulators think leaving 20 or more tons lurking in the bay to leak into the food chain is just fine. But then, they seem equally unconcerned with the untold millions of tons of waste dumped in gravel pits and ravines county-wide, leaching un-sampled wastes into streams and groundwater and wells. Even while conducting a three year study of downtown Bellingham air quality, regulators chose to never once measure for mercury vapors - thirty years after facilities like G-P's were known to be the single largest human source of mercury emissions.

Turning a blind eye toward threats to the public's health may be a necessary hallmark of our government's regulation of this industry. Regulators themselves may be culpable in the damages. G-P's facility was being permitted here at the same time as the cause of the mercury poisoning disaster in Minimata was being fully understood in the world community. In the early seventies, regulators in Great Lakes Basin States and Canadian Provinces were shutting down thirty such facilities. The World Health Organization had issued warnings that mercury was a threat to human health, food and water supplies. By the end of the eighties, the International North Seas Conference, acknowledging mercury as a threat to fish stocks, recommended that , "...mercury cell chlor-alkali plants should be phased out as soon as practicable...". Still, the mill in Bellingham was allowed to operate, discharging untold tons of mercury into the environment. No regulator has yet even required G-P to account for the mercury used in their process.

Cleaning it up won't be easy. Stirring up hotspots could release some toxic materials back into the environment. It won't be cheap, either. The costs for removal and disposal of "contaminated subaqeuous sediments" are astronomical, sometimes over $1,500.00 per ton. And it could turn into a very big job. State regulators estimate that there are over 2 million cubic yards of contaminated sediments in Bellingham Bay. Clean-up alternatives range between removing it all, down to only the worst 200,000 cubic yards. The Port's proposal cleans up only the G-P treatment lagoon in order to convert it to a marina. Other contaminated sediments would be left in place to be slowly covered with glacial flour trasported by the Nooksack River. Regulators seem most concerned with minimizing costs to G-P.

But leaving it in place could be a big mistake if it doesn't stay put. Already there are indications of decreasing mercury levels in surface sediments. If that means it is going away, everyone should agree it would be better going away in train cars. Mercury releases are now known to be avoided at all costs. Much is still being learned about mercury flux around industrial sites.

Daytime fluxes spike mercury vapor to ten times ambient levels in these readings taken one mile upwind of this decommissioned chlorine facility in former East Germany.

Whatever methods are ultimately employed, the decision should belong to our community, not Georgia-Pacific. It should be a solution principally based on environmental quality and integrity, not cost. GP took their profits. Now they should clean up their mess - to our satisfaction - before they pull out. Citizens should ask - regulators never will - how much mercury was used and where it all went. Anything less is giving G-P a free ride at the public's expense.

GP's products would benefit from the company gaining a reputation as a responsible corporate citizen. By doing the right thing in Bellingham, righting the wrongs of a bygone era, they can avoid adverse publicity around some of their worst environmental travesties. GP should have every motivation, properly induced, to cooperate fully with the community in a long-term commitment to environmental integrity on the site, in the bay and around the county where they dumped their wastes.


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