March 8, 2001
When a landslide came loose from the hills above the town of Stafford Dec. 31, 1996, it destroyed houses and gave birth to a long and dramatic legal battle. Residents of the town claimed the landslide and subsequent damage were caused by irresponsible logging by Pacific Lumber and Barnum Timber, allegations the timber companies denied.
After two judges and more than four years, that battle came to a close this week with a $3.3 million settlement, all but $150,000 of which will be paid by PL and its insurance carrier. The remaining money will be paid by Barnum's insurance company.
The deal was announced March 5, the day a jury trial was to have begun. PL spokesperson Mary Bullwinkel said PL was approached by the plaintiffs March 2 to talk about a deal and the negotiations occurred over the weekend. "We were prepared to go to trial," Bullwinkel said.
A statement released by the plaintiffs alleges PL agreed to the settlement "in order to avoid the jury trial."
The money will be dispersed among the 26 Stafford residents according to estimates of how a jury would have awarded damages, said Steve Schechtman, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. Individual awards will range between $90,000 and $200,000 -- minus legal fees.
"Everyone is happy with the economics" of the situation, Schechtman said at a press conference at the county courthouse after the settlement was finalized. But Schechtman said the money doesn't address the safety issues that remain for people still living in Stafford -- another landslide could occur any time.
"We may have won the case but the scenario of life under the landslide still exists," said Stafford resident Mike O'Neal. "No one is really in a celebratory mood because of those safety concerns."
The only safety measure included in the settlement is a range of lights installed at the foot of the slope so that residents can monitor the hill by night.
Kim Rollins, who had to abandon his house in Stafford after the slide, said the settlement was fine but that he wanted to have his day in court. "I wanted to testify and tell my story," Rollins said. "My grandfather worked for PL for 50 years and my father worked for them for 40 years. I worked there briefly myself. I grew up believing in the company. Nothing I saw today [in the settlement] will bring that back."
The Humboldt County Grand Jury is breaking a 10-year tradition this season by not distributing the county government's response to the grand jury report through local newspapers. The reason?
"Money," said John Westrick, foreman of the jury.
"It costs about $5,000 to put it in the paper and we didn't have that much money so we had to go another route."
The next best thing was to place the document where people could easily pick it up -- at branches of the county library. It may not be as convenient as having the report delivered with your newspaper, but the price is hard to beat: $600.
Five hundred copies have been printed and are available at libraries as well as the county administrative office in the courthouse. The response can also be accessed on the Internet at www.co.humboldt.ca.us.
Last week the Journal reported on the Environmental Protection Information Center's intent to sue the city of Eureka for alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act. In fact, Eureka, Fortuna and Fort Bragg have all been notified they will be sued by another environmental group, Riverwatch, for similar activity associated with their wastewater systems.
Fortuna City Manager Dale Neiman acknowleges that some violations have occurred. But, he said, "What's frustrating is that we've been working with the Regional Water Quality Control Board on fixing these." The city needs to construct a facility that will adjust the pH level of the wastewater, for instance -- but those changes are in progress.
Common to all suits is the Clean Water Act, which requires agencies that discharge waste to have a permit with specific standards for how pollution is to be treated.
The regional water board, which has the power to fine Fortuna for wastewater problems, has so far declined to do so because the city has been cooperating in making changes.
Ironically, the board's tolerant attitude may actually cost the city more. If the water board had fined the city, the environmental groups and other private parties would be prevented from suing.
The maximum fine for a single violation is $25,000. The cost of a lawsuit is undetermined.
Fortuna and the board are investigating whether a fine levied now would shield the city from further legal action.
"With these suits under the Clean Water Act, these people can sue you and then you end up paying their attorney fees and your attorney fees," Neiman said.
The Riverwatch/Fortuna lawsuit has been sent to mediation, although a mediator and dates have not been chosen.
KVIQ-TV Channel 6 has changed the structure of its 6-7 a.m. news program, joining with a sister station in Santa Rosa to provide regional as well as local and national coverage.
Jeanne Buheit, vice president and general manager for the station, stressed that the increase in regional coverage doesn't mean a reduction in local news.
"You'll see the same amount of stuff from Humboldt County," Buheit said, but less national and international news.
The show will be anchored by Kim and Melinda Meza in Santa Rosa, with locals Dave Silverbrand and Leslie Lollich contributing local news. The show's components will be transmitted by fiberoptic cable and broadcast simultaneously in both locations.
The counties to the south of us that will now be included in these newscasts -- Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake -- are important to us because they are affected by many of the same issues, Buheit said.
"These counties share our state and congressional delegations. The issues that affect that area are crucial to us, especially when you talk about water," Buheit said.
On Monday, just two days before the freshman class of 2004 was scheduled to take the first part of a new high school exit exam, the state Senate decided that the test will be official. This is a reversal for Gov. Gray Davis who offered a bill making the first run through for the controversial tests a dry run.
It is not certain how many of Humboldt County's 1,755 ninth-graders will take the English portion of the test Wednesday, March 7. The math portion will be March 13.
"We don't know what to expect," said Richard Thomasini, principal at Fortuna High. Officials at all area high schools said that all freshmen have been asked to participate -- and they assume almost all will take the exams -- but at this point the tests are not mandatory.
On the day before the test, administrators were scrambling to get ready for the untimed exam, which may take as long as 2-!/2 hours to complete.
"It's a mess. The instructions were done poorly," Thomasini complained. "None of us are happy with the way they're going through with this."
Thomasini said there are advantages to the students. For example, they will receive a post-test report showing where they need work.
The failure of Davis' bill means those who pass the test will not have to take it again. However, the state has not determined what a passing grade will be since no norm has been set.
A number of other questions remain unanswered. It is assumed that not all ninth-graders will pass the test, which is based on minimum standards for 10th-graders. Since the freshmen who pass will not take the exams again, next year's pool of sophomores -- who will be required to take the exams -- will be statistically skewed by exclusion of the more advanced classmates.
Janet Frost of the Humboldt County Office of Education sees the test as an example of a governor and Legislature acting too quickly in response to public pressure.
"There is some concern that the state could be sued if a student is denied a diploma based on a flawed test," she said.
Today's test question: Davis' bill failed in a 24-12 vote that followed party lines. It required a 2/3 majority. Why didn't it pass? (Hint: One Senate seat is empty.) If you present this as a math problem show your work. You may choose to compose an essay on the subject.
Fortuna writer Roy Parvin is a happy guy. He just received the news that one of his stories has been selected for Houghton Mifflin's prestigious anthology, Best American Short Stories 2001.
Parvin was featured in a September 2000 Journal in connection with his latest work, In the Snow Forest, a trio of novellas. One of the stories from the book, "Betty Hutton," was selected by author Barbara Kingsolver, editor of this year's anthology.
"For a writer it's the equivalent of getting an Oscar or a Grammy," said Parvin.
The anthology has been published annually for more than 80 years. Parvin joins the ranks of Raymond Carver, Walter Mosley, Joyce Carol Oates and Pam Houston, all of whom have been included in recent editions.
The Humboldt Arts Council and the Ink People will host the third annual North Coast Open Studios June 9-10, giving art lovers a chance to learn about their favorite artists up close and personal.
"The main advantage for artists is that it is another place to show their work," said Sasha Pepper of the Ink People. Entries cost $30 and are being accepted by the council now through March 31. Call 442-0278 or 442-8413 for an entry form.
Want to access health and human resources in Humboldt County? The Humboldt County Switchboard lets your fingers do the walking and in the future they won't have to walk so far.
The switchboard uses the number 441-1001, but the Federal Communications Commission ruled last summer that helplines like the switchboard can access the number 211. Intended as a bridge between the 911 and 411 services, 211 would be a "universal help line," the same wherever you went.
Cheryl Alexander, executive director of the switchboard, said funding needs to come from within the community and she hopes the 211 designation would raise awareness of the switchboard and foster support. The number is not yet online, however. People seeking services should still use 441-1001.
-- reported by Arno Holschuh and Bob Doran
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