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Aug. 18, 2005

The Weekly Wrap

Results of state school testing in

Bay dredge spoils may be beach-bound again


The Weekly Wrap

MAXXAM ENDGAME: Over the past few weeks, a flurry of documents filed by the Houston-based Maxxam Corp. with the Securities and Exchange Commission have made it clear that the company is seeking to unload, in one way or another, some combination of the two main assets it holds in Humboldt County -- its Scotia mills, which, along with the town itself, falls under the age-old banner of the Pacific Lumber Co.; or its 220,00 acres of Humboldt County timber land, which, following a 1998 reorganization, legally belong to a sister company, Scotia Pacific. Both companies are wholly owned subsidiaries of Maxxam, the company that has been the particular bête noire of local environmentalists since the company bought out Pacific Lumber in 1985. That is about to change. In recent months, the company has made no secret of the deep financial crisis it finds itself in. The cause of all the red ink flooding Scotia is hotly debated. The company blames environmental regulators, especially the California State Water Resources Control Board, for shutting off logging in the Freshwater and Elk River watersheds; that agency and local environmental groups blame the company's own crippling debt, a legacy of the Maxxam takeover that requires it to come up with over $50 million annually to keep creditors at bay. Whatever the case, the company is insolvent. In July, it was barely able to make its semiannual payment on its debt, which is now held in the form of "timber bonds." Shortly after, Maxxam floated a plan to relieve itself of its debt obligations, essentially by declaring bankruptcy and turning over Scotia Pacific assets -- the land itself -- to creditors, along with a new $300 million IOU. According to the newsletter Debtwire, a committee representing Maxxam's creditors is currently in heated negotiations with the company; in a report dated August 10, Debtwire's Matt Wirz reported that the creditors are pushing for Scotia Pacifc to declare bankruptcy by the end of September. Such an outcome would likely affect Pacific Lumber and Maxxam as well, as Maxxam noted in a quarterly report to the SEC last week. The company noted that it currently owes about $35 million to its workers' pension plan, and that in the event of a bankruptcy the three companies would likely all be held responsible for coming up with that money. Or, in the end, it could be the someone else picking up the tab: When another Maxxam subsidiary Kaiser Aluminum terminated its pension plan in late 2003, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation -- an insurance program run by the federal government -- was forced to take over payments to retired workers. Whatever the case, the final days are certainly upon us. "Scotia Pacific and its bondholders are working toward bankruptcy like lumberjacks pulling a two-man saw through one of the timber company's giant redwoods," Wirz wrote in last week's report. In other words, slowly but steadily.

DON'T CALL IT THE HARBOR DISTRICT: The upcoming race for the governing board of the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District is beginning to take shape. Two seats on the board, which is charged with overseeing development on and preservation of California's second-largest natural harbor, are up for election -- those currently occupied by Dennis Hunter of Eureka and Ron Fritzche of Arcata. Both men will seek reelection, but, somewhat unusually, both will have some competition this time around. In Eureka, Maggy Herbelin ended weeks of speculation by announcing that she would challenge Hunter. A mediator by trade, and the former coordinator of the Humboldt Bay Stewards, Herbelin said that if elected, she would strive to open the district to collaboration with other groups with interested in the bay -- something that is currently sorely lacking, she said. "I want to see that all the groups that are out there, working for the betterment and future of our bay, are part of the work that the commission does," she said Monday. "Right now, you talk to somebody from the Friends of the Dunes, or from other agencies -- it's like pulling teeth, talking to the district. I want to change that, to make it so the district wants to look forward to them coming in." At a press conference last week, Herbelin pleaded with members of the media to abandon the practice of referring to the awkwardly named governmental body as "the harbor district" in favor of "the bay district" -- a more accurate and inclusive description of its focus, she said. Meanwhile, Mike Wilson, a hydrological engineer and a member of the board of directors of the Friends of the Dunes, announced that he would challenge Fritzsche for the Arcata seat on the district board. Wilson could not be reached for comment, but last week he told the Arcata Eye that he would "work towards improving the health of the entire Humboldt Bay watershed." In past years, the district has focused a good deal of effort on improving port facilities in the hopes of spurring economic development; some critics have said that the conservation aspect of its mission has been undervalued.

WILLIAMSON ACT REDUX: The county planning division's revisions to its hotly debated updates to local Williamson Act guidelines go before the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors next Tuesday. The Williamson Act -- a.k.a. the California Land Conservation Act of 1965 -- allows farmers and ranchers to enter into contracts with their local governments in which they agree to keep their lands in agricultural production in exchange for significant tax breaks. Humboldt County has been part of the Williamson Act program since 1969, and has 273,000 acres in the program. In 2002, county planning staff made sweeping changes to the local guidelines, a few of which baffled or angered some contract holders, in particular some ranchers with "Class B" (grazing) lands held in Williamson Act preserves when the county planners officially announced enactment of the updates earlier this year. One of the most contentious of the 2002 guidelines required all contract holders to sign updated, new contracts. After much dissent, the county planners revised that guideline "to require only owners of contracted lands that have been transferred outside of the family of the original signatory to update their contract with a new version," according to the planning division's public notice. Some ranchers still find that new requirement grating, however, in particular ranchers who've owned their preserves for years even though they're not the original contract signatories. And, says attorney Bill Bertain, who has spoken out against some of the guideline changes, the revisions to the guidelines "do not address the primary issues of concern: the retroactive application of the 2002 guidelines" to existing contract holders, and "the 600-acre minimum parcel size" for land transfers within grazing preserves. In all of the meetings during the past eight months, Bertain says, "the Williamson Act chairman and apparently the planning department did not want to have any discussion on those two issues." He says he and "many ranchers hope the board will revisit the 2002 guidelines" and those two issues. (For more background on the debate, see "Divided Land," July 21). The hearing is Tuesday, Aug. 23, at 1:45 p.m. in the board chambers at the county courthouse in Eureka.

PAC CLEARS UP COMMIE ENDORSEMENT: Patrick Riggs, founding member of the Local Solutions political action committee, wants Journal readers to know that his group has not formally endorsed Shane Brinton, the 18-year-old communist who is running for a seat on the Northern Humboldt Union High School District's board. In a story last week, the Journal quoted from a Brinton e-mail to filmmaker Michael Moore in which the youth claimed that Local Solutions had given him the "thumbs-up." Riggs wishes to clarify the statement. "It's possible that we'll work with a person and encourage them to run, but when it comes down to it we might endorse someone else," Riggs said. In fact, he says, Local Solutions will be inviting all candidates for the NHUHSD board -- as well as other local offices up for election this November -- to meet with the group to discuss the issues. Only then, Riggs says, will the PAC make an endorsement in any given race. (See "Communist blasts developer," Aug. 11)

CORRECTION: Our Aug. 4 cover story, "Incident at C. Crane," mistakenly implied that Chris Justice and Kirk Williams were arrested for illegally copying the C. Crane Company's customer database. In fact, though criminal charges relating to the incident in question were brought against both men -- charges to which both later pleaded no contest -- neither of them were ever physically taken into custody by the Fortuna Police Department or any other law enforcement agency. The Journal regrets the error.

Results of state school testing in

On Monday, the California Department of Education released the initial results of last year's STAR tests -- a comprehensive, statewide standardized test taken annually by California students in grades 2 through 12.

Janet Frost, spokesperson for the Humboldt County Office of Education, said Tuesday that she was still poring through the voluminous reports pertaining to Humboldt County schools, but that the results initially appeared to be good.

"Generally, the results on the `California Standards' portion of the test -- the one they're placing the greatest emphasis on the days -- are good throughout the county," she said.

Countywide, Frost said, the scores for language arts were up for every age cohort in the county, except for 10th graders. Children did better in primary math -- grades 2-7 -- then they did last year, though algebra scores fell slightly. History and social sciences were up; biology and chemistry were down.

Later in the year, the results released this week will be run through a complicated formula to determine how well each school and each district in the state is doing in meeting the goals set by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The outcome of that process will determine whether a school will be subject to "program improvement," a series of ever-harsher penalties (see "Making the Grade," Sept. 23, 2004).

With the beginning of the school year just around the corner, parents may wish to use the test results of prospective schools to gauge whether or not it is a good fit for their child. Competition between public schools, private schools and charter schools has been increasingly fierce in recent years, with many schools making strong pitches at a time when overall enrollment is static.

Frost said that the impulse to research a prospective school was laudable, but she offered some caution to parents wishing to use STAR test results for that purpose.

"What I would say is that it's useful information to see, especially if you have the time and patience to track a school over time, to see how a it has done in improving its scores," Frost said. "But in selecting a school for a particular student, it's important to look at what that school can offer a particular child's needs. And it may not be measured by a test score."

Full test results can be accessed through the STAR page at the California Department of Education's website, Reports are available by school, by school district or for Humboldt County as a whole.

Bay dredge spoils may be beach-bound again


A row has broken out over plans to dredge Humboldt Bay along the Eureka waterfront and Woodley Island and dump the spoils on the beach of the Samoa Peninsula. Last week, when the city of Eureka and the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District brought their dredge dumping applications before the California Coastal Commission, there was enough agitation from opponents to the dumping portion of the plan to give the commissioners pause. The proponents were asked to withdraw their applications and bring them back to the next commission meeting, in Eureka, in September.

Dredging isn't a new thing for the bay, nor one that meets with too much opposition. It's what should happen with the muck after it's either sucked or dug up off the bottom of the bay that people disagree about. The Army Corps of Engineers does frequent dredging along federal channels leading into the harbors, and it dumps its spoils in an offshore Environmental Protection Agency-designated site called the Humboldt Open Ocean Disposal Site (HOODS), three miles offshore from the harbor entrance.

The city and harbor district dredge less frequently. They dredged in 1988, and they dredged in 1998. Both times, they disposed of the dredge spoils in the surf-zone of the Samoa Peninsula -- with blessings from a number of local, state and federal agencies, but over the objections of the EPA.

Now they want to dredge again, between November and next March, from nearly a dozen sites -- which they are allowed to do under two existing 10-year permits from the Corps of Engineers. They want to slurry their combined 200,390 cubic yards of dredge spoils through

a 12-inch pipeline to open shoreline along Samoa, as in the past. They'll need permits from the California Coastal Commission to do that, and last Friday their permit applications (submitted last September) finally went before the Coastal Commission at its meeting in Costa Mesa. However, after hearing concerns from the EPA and the nonprofit watchdog groups Humboldt Baykeeper and the Environmental Protection and Information Center -- including that it was hard for local folks to get to Costa Mesa for the hearing -- the commission convinced the city and harbor district to withdraw their applications and bring them back to the commission's September meeting in Eureka.

Coastal Commission planner Jim Baskin said the applications had already been delayed because the city and the harbor district had failed to consult with some of the federal agencies, such as the EPA, about chemicals in some of the sediments.

"We had to remind them they have to bounce these applications off of the federal agencies first -- and oh, they need to give chemical and material sampling of the dredge materials to the EPA," Baskin said.

Concerns include the presence of trace chemicals in the sediments, the impacts to the beach environment and beach users when the sludgy spoils wash up on the sand, and the potential impacts to two protected salmonid species that use the bay.

"Back in 1998, the EPA objected very strongly" to the city of Eureka's and the harbor district's being allowed to dump the dredge spoils in the surf zone, said Brian Ross, a San Francisco-based member of the EPA's Dredging and Sediment Management Team. "We believed, and we still believe, it was not appropriate for that material to go on the beach. And we told them, they need to be looking forward in their fiscal planning" and take the spoils to the HOODS site. The city and harbor district say that alternative is too expensive -- $3.8 million to dump at the HOODS site versus $2 million to dump in the surf zone -- and not necessarily more environmentally sound.

In an Aug. 11 e-mail to members of the Army Corps of Engineers, the coastal commission and other state agencies, Ross said the EPA had reviewed the sediment test results, and found that sediments from dredge sites were too silty to dump on the beach. He noted that samples from the site contained too much silt in 1996, and that current samples showed that the material that will be dredged is even less sandy now, and "inappropriately fine for nearshore placement and beach nourishment."

Beach nourishment is a term used when material dredged from one locale is dumped on a beach that is shrinking. The material has to be mostly sand to work, and the need for beach nourishment exists in southern California but generally not up here on the North Coast, Ross said.

"You put sand on a beach, not mud," he said.

The EPA also wants more study of the chemicals in the sediments to be dredged. Initial tests found trace levels of carcinogens and PCBs. And there were higher levels at one site, the Coast Seafoods Dock. "This is not the horrible, glowing, contaminated stuff, it's just a little too much to dump on the beach," Ross said. He said while most of the other sediment could go to the HOODS site, the EPA would recommend that sediment from the Coast Seafoods Dock be disposed on land.

Humboldt Baykeeper Director Peter Nichols called the city's and harbor district's sediment sampling analysis, by consultant Pacific Affiliates, "incomplete" and "flawed."

"They didn't test for dioxins," Nichols said. He said dioxins have been shown to be present in other tests. And, he said, the presence of carcinogens found in the consultant's sampling should be reason enough not to dump the sediments in the surf zone. "The problem with that is there are about six really good surf areas there [off Samoa], and the last time they disposed of the sediments there, a lot of surfers told them it was affecting them."

Dave Hull, chief executive officer of the harbor district, said he agrees that if the sediment levels at the Coast Seafoods Dock, for example, are higher than acceptable, they can't be dumped nearshore or offshore. "If it turns out it's not suitable, then it'll be pulled from the project," he said. But he says the EPA is too hung up on the notion of "beach nourishment."

"What we're doing is not beach replenishing," Hull said. He said the dredge spoils are dumped in the surf zone in the winter, when more dynamic conditions mix up the stuff and wash it away. And what does wash up on the beach may have an impact, he agrees, but a temporary one. Studies after the last dredging and surf-zone dumping found that while sand-dwelling creatures died off, their populations recovered several months later, he said.

Nichols seems horrified by the notion, however, of so much muck washing up again on the beach. "We're talking 200,000 cubic yards -- that's 20,000 10-yard dump trucks. Bumper to bumper, they would stretch from Eureka to Crescent City. They're crying poverty, but the lack of planning on the part of the harbor district and the city of Eureka does not constitute an emergency on the public's part to allow these spoils to be dumped in the surf zone."

Nichols said once the spoils are dumped in the surf zone, longshore currents pull the "black sludge" ashore. "We're talking paving over the beach," he said, "filling in the spaces between the sand, and cementing over the beach for several months and killing the benthic organisms that live in the sand. We're not against dredging at all. It's how it happens and how they're disposing of it that we're concerned about."

The Coastal Commission's Eureka meeting is set for Sept. 14-16.



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