North Coast Journal WeeklyIn the News

June 20, 2002

State found PCP in commercial oysters in 1984

 Downtown low-down

Waste nobody wants

Big flag to fly again

Ps-sst: Wanna free lunch?

Big splash in Arcata

No splashes yet in Eureka

State found PCP in commercial oysters in 1984


STATE SHELLFISH MONITORING PROGRAM detected a dangerous wood preservative in commercials oysters in Humboldt Bay in 1984 -- yet apparently no effort was made to test additional beds or to alert the public.

In addition, the program, dubbed "Mussel Watch," found the same chemical -- pentachlorophenol -- in every sample of mussels that was collected between 1983 and 1992 at a popular fishing spot in the Mad River Slough off Samoa Road. Nonetheless, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, which runs the Mussel Watch program on the North Coast, never requested that further investigation be done to determine whether there was a public health threat.

As early as 1981, it turns out, the regional board was finding tainted shellfish in a part of the Mad River Slough immediately adjacent to the suspected source of the contamination detections: Sierra Pacific Industries Arcata mill, where from the 1960s to the 1980s wood was dipped in PCP in an outdoor area known as a "dip tank."

According to a July 13, 1981 lab report, PCP was found in clams at four locations in the slough near the plant; and in crabs at two locations. Additionally, the state found PCP in three locations in sediments, the report says.

Aerial map of Humboldt Bay oyster beds showing bridge over Mad River Slough, area where contaminated oysters were found in 1984, oyster beds in center of North Bay and locations of Arcata, Eureka, Indian Island and the Pacific ocean.It is not clear which company owned the oysters that were found to be contaminated in 1984. What is clear is that the oysters were in a bed located along the Mad River Slough Channel, which extends out into the bay from the Sierra Pacific mill. Today, Coast Seafoods Co., by far the largest operator in the bay, has beds along the channel. Greg Dale, a company official, did not return telephone calls that were made to his office Tuesday.

The only other time oyster beds were tested, apparently, was in 1988, when mussels analyzed from oyster docks in the slough -- less than a mile north of the mill site -- were found to contain PCP at a concentration of 722 parts per billion. No oysters were tested at that time.

The historical detections of contamination in shellfish are coming to light as the regional water board has asked Sierra Pacific to conduct a "human health and ecological risk assessment" of the Mad River Slough. The purpose of the study is to determine the extent to which contaminants -- in particular PCP and dioxin -- have migrated off-site into the ecosystem. The study, which the company has agreed to perform, will also apparently look at the extent to which PCP and dioxin have entered the food chain.

The historical data is also being made public just months after a toxicological report found elevated levels of dioxin in mussels and crabs in the slough next to the mill. The report was commissioned by the Ecological Rights Foundation, which is suing Sierra Pacific over alleged violations of the Clean Water Act.

PCP is generally perceived as a danger sign by toxicologists since it usually contains amounts of one of the most toxic of all man-made chemicals: dioxin. Many scientists believe there is no safe level of the chemical, which can cause cancer in extremely small amounts -- perhaps as little as one molecule. It is also highly toxic to the reproductive system, the immune system and can disrupt normal development.

PCP itself is also hazardous. The level of the chemical that was detected in the oysters 18 years ago was 150 parts per billion, according to a Mussel Watch document. The same document says that the level of the chemical in the mussels ranged from 257 parts per billion to as high as 25,000 parts per billion during the 10 years that mussels were tested for PCP.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PCP has been found to potentially cause damage to the central nervous system when exposure levels are about 1 ppb for a short period of time. Lifetime exposure has the potential to cause reproductive effects, damage to the liver and kidneys and cancer.

The repeated detections of PCP in sediments immediately adjacent to the Sierra Pacific mill and in aquatic life in the slough led the water board to pressure Sierra Pacific to stop using PCP, which it discontinued in the late 1980s.

When asked why more wasn't done to protect the public, Susan Warner, executive officer of the regional water board staff, said that back in the 1980s, the typical reaction to such a situation was to persuade the company to stop using the pollutant and to have them clean up any spills. "Back then, did things progress to a major investigation of contamination? Not very often. It would be done differently today."

Patty Clary of Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, a Eureka-based group, said that there's no excuse for the water board's handling of the situation since the danger of PCP and dioxin had been known since the mid-1970s. She said the water board did so little in part because back then and to this day the agency does not have an office any closer to the Humboldt Bay region than Santa Rosa. "We're second or third-rate up here," Clary said.

While the company maintains to this day that contaminants have not migrated off-site, there appears to be little doubt that Sierra Pacific is the source of the PCP contamination in the slough. This was clear to at least one water board staffer as long ago as the early 1980s, when the Mussel Watch program began finding PCP in the mussels it was placing in the slough near the site. In a deposition taken in March, William Rodriguez, who is retired from the water board, said that the PCP found in the mussels, which were hung in a mesh bag off a railroad bridge for a period of six months, pointed "like an arrow" at the Sierra Pacific mill as the source.

The company, which has operated the mill for some 40 years, says that it has not released any dioxin into the bay environment.

Warner said that "in the past there were undoubtedly fairly significant discharges of PCP and breakdown products like dioxin."

Stormwater discharges tainted with PCP that run toward the slough continue to this day, despite the fact that PCP is no longer used on site. Warner said one possible source of the PCP is from drainage ditches on site and immediately adjacent to the mill that are known to be contaminated. Another, more ominous possibility, Warner said, is that the PCP is coming from groundwater underneath the plant, which rises up during rain events. The groundwater, as even the company acknowledges, contains high levels of contaminants.

Referring to Sierra Pacific's health and environmental study, Warner said that aquatic life will be collected and tested. She also said that the study might include sampling from the commercial oyster beds, which are located out in the bay about a mile south of the mill site.

Vicky Frey of the California Department of Fish and Game said last week that the study should include such sampling, although she doubted the beds are in danger due to their distance from the mill. It is not clear whether Frey knew of the PCP detection in the oyster beds out in the bay 18 years ago when she made that statement.

Jim Lamport, executive director of the Ecological Rights Foundation, which is suing Sierra Pacific over alleged Clean Water Act violations, has raised the possibility that the commercial beds could be vulnerable to contamination because they are located along the Mad River Slough Channel, which extends out into the bay. "That is the tidal channel that feeds and empties the slough. These beds may be affected by contaminated sediments that are discharged from the mill, or that have accumulated near the mouth of the mill."

Downtown low-down

Plaza Design of Arcata and McKinleyville will be adding a third store by fall on the high-traffic corner of 5th and F streets in Eureka. In the meantime, down the street at 4th and F, the fate of the Daly building complex remains uncertain.

Commenting on the number of storefronts vacant in the city's downtown, Plaza Design owner Julie Fulkerson said some retailers need to take a risk.

"We're going to step right in. We're opening the new store in September and we're looking forward to a new challenge," she said.

The stores feature home furnishings, including custom furniture by local woodworkers, gifts and jewelry. The new store will occupy 9,000 square feet -- twice the size of the Arcata and McKinleyville stores.

The McKinleyville store has been showing strong growth and the Arcata flagship store is "holding its own," Fulkerson said, so neither will be affected by this expansion.

The Eureka Plaza Design will be located in the historic Gross Building, owned by Dan Ollivier, a developer who is in escrow with the Humboldt State University Foundation for the purchase of the entire Daly building complex which contains the historic State Theater known as the Sweasey Building. That sale has some major issues unresolved before escrow closes.

The Eureka City Council is insisting that HSU officials take the lead in renovating the theater into a performing arts center as they promised when they purchased it.

"HSU undertook this project and accepted the right to ownership knowing the responsibilities and risks," City Manager David Tyson wrote in a June 7 letter to HSU. The city will help in such a project, but the city is not going to step in and let the university off the hook as the building's legal owner.

HSU officials just want to unload the property and are prepared to relist it for sale if Ollivier's plan falls through.

"HSU cannot use general funds for such a project. It's illegal," said Robert Schulz, HSU director of physical services. "The HSU Foundation made a good-faith effort to find donors and we simply weren't able."

Ollivier said he doesn't want the theater building either. His purchase offer is contingent upon reselling it to another buyer. He amended his offer to HSU last month to include the nonprofit theater group, Plays in Progress, which is raising funds for its share of the $550,000 purchase price.

The HSU Foundation purchased the property in 1998 using a $700,000 interest-free loan from the Eureka Redevelopment Agency. HSU still owes Eureka about $470,000 which is due in one balloon payment in two years.

Waste nobody wants

There is a problem with the 20 tons of nuclear waste stored at the decommissioned Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant: Almost nobody wants it here and nobody wants it moved -- anywhere near them anyway.

"It's sort of a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation," said Tim McKay of the Northcoast Environmental Center in Arcata.

The waste is scheduled to be transported to the new federal nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, Nev., between 2010 and 2050, and either way it's going to have to go through Humboldt County to get out of it.

The two proposed routes are south along the Northwestern Pacific Railroad line -- which poses a problem since the tracks have been wiped out since El Niño in 1998 -- and east by truck along Highway 299.

Congressman Mike Thompson, who voted against the Yucca Mountain project and the planned transportation routes, said in an interview with the Santa Rosa Press Democrat that if he had to choose, he would prefer to use Highway 299.

It is estimated that it will cost up to $60 million to repair the tracks that would be used in the southern route.

"We're entirely against [moving] it," said Michael Welch of the local nuclear watchdog group Redwood Alliance. "We think that the waste that's in Humboldt Bay nuclear power facility can be stored safely on site. It's more dangerous to transport it, and it's more dangerous to other communities to store it there."

The radioactive waste is now stored in tanks of water at the plant but would be encased in steel and concrete drums, called dry casks, in the next five years to prepare them for transportation.

These casks could alternatively be used, according to Welch, as a method of storage that could last indefinitely and withstand the earthquake that "will happen" at the Humboldt Bay site, which sits directly on a fault line.

Big flag to fly again

Wes Green of Wes Green Landscaping will once again be hoisting the colors, resurrecting after three years the largest, most controversial flag in Humboldt County.

The flag, which was and will be flown above Wes Green Landscaping on Highway 101 between Arcata and McKinleyville, was stolen twice and has been the subject of bureaucratic wrangling over line of sight and issues and due to the fact that the flagpole was constructed without a permit.

The now-permitted flag was originally raised in 1991 in support of the Gulf War and is now being raised as a reaction to the events of Sept. 11 and the War on Terrorism.

Ps-sst: Wanna free lunch?

There is such a thing as a free lunch, if you're under 18 and live in Humboldt County.

Food for People, the county food bank, is offering a county-wide free lunch program, subsidized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

There are 11 lunch sites throughout the county: Pierson Park in McKinleyville; Redwood Park and River Community Homes in Arcata; Food for People, Ross Park and Lincoln Elementary in Eureka; Summer Fun, Newburg Park and South Fortuna Elementary School in Fortuna; and the fireman's park in Rio Dell.

Big splash in Arcata

The Arcata Community Pool held the grand opening for the first waterslide in Humboldt County last Friday, meeting with acclaim from kids and adults alike.

"It's really fun -- oh my God, it's so much fun," said Emilia Kelly, a lifeguard at the pool. "It's the best thing the Arcata pool ever got for kids."

The slide, which was the brain child of Dan Collins, the new HSU athletics director, cost $70,000 to build, the majority of it coming from the California Endowment with the remainder made up by small grants and private donations.

No splashes yet in Eureka

Swimmers in Eureka will have to wait a little longer for the reopening of the pool at Eureka High School, which had been closed for years due to leaks.

Apparently some regulations regarding water flow through the skimming system were discovered by the county health department after the plans had been approved and the extensive remodel completed.

"We weren't the only ones. The state architect missed it, too," said Jeff Arnold, public health branch director for the county.

"We have the redesign from the engineer and are reviewing it. We're working with them as fast as we can," Arnold added, knowing that pollywogs and guppies are anxiously waiting.



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