Aug. 18, 2005
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
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, star.cde.ca.gov. Reports are available by school, by school district or for Humboldt County as a whole.
by HEIDI WALTERS
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.
Comments? Write a letter!
© Copyright 2005, North Coast Journal, Inc.