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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
on this strategy featuring GP's Chip Hilardes.
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
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
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.