North Coast Journal WeeklyIn the News

August 8, 2002

Dioxin found in Humboldt Bay Oysters
But is it a health threat?

Clock ticking for RV park tenants

 Elk River logging likely to stop

Rancheria sues city

Caltrans 1, PacBell 0

Trees vandalized

Yakima expanding

Fire danger continues

Co-op restructuring

Fasting for the forest

Dioxin found in Humboldt Bay Oysters  But is it a health threat?


Elevated levels of dioxin, one of the deadliest chemicals known, have been found in commercial oysters in Humboldt Bay.

But experts interviewed for this story sharply disagreed about whether the levels -- which ranged from slightly less than one part per trillion to just over four parts per trillion -- are high enough to present a significant public health risk.

The findings are presented in a recently completed 19-page report prepared for Sierra Pacific Industries, which is being sued by environmentalists for allegedly discharging dioxin-containing pollutants into the bay in violation of the Clean Water Act.

The study was done after Coast Seafoods, Inc., the largest operator in Humboldt Bay, and other local oyster companies, raised concerns about the possible contamination of their oyster beds.

The concerns stemmed in part from stories that appeared in the North Coast Journal earlier this summer that mussels and crabs in a part of the Mad River Slough immediately adjacent to Sierra Pacific's Arcata mill contained elevated levels of dioxin.

The new report, done by a Bay-Area based consulting company called Environ, found no pattern in the dioxin detections that points to Sierra Pacific's mill as the source. Additionally, the report said that the concentrations of dioxin that were found in the oysters are much too low to pose a threat to anyone.

"No one will eat enough of those oysters over time to generate a significant health problem," said Richard J. Wenning, senior manager at Environ and the main author of the study.

A scientist hired by the Ecological Rights Foundation, the Oakland-based environmental group that is suing Sierra Pacific, vehemently disagreed.

Marc Lappe, a toxicologist, did not dispute the data that the report is based on. Instead, he challenged the interpretation of that data, saying that the report was a "serious distortion" and "a whitewash [that] does the public a great disservice."

Lappe, who runs a consulting company called the Center for Ethics and Toxics, based in Gualala, Calif., said that the levels of dioxin are high enough that "a strict limit is clearly needed" for people who eat oysters from the bay.

He recommended that adult males consume no more than a single monthly serving of six oysters. He said pregnant women "probably should not eat (Humboldt Bay) oysters" at all.

Lappe called for an "independent entity" to review the oyster data and possibly to do more sampling.

Exposure to dioxin, a byproduct of many industrial processes, is "associated with a wide array of adverse health effects," according to a fact sheet put out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Dioxin, a group of 210 structurally similar organic chemicals, has been shown to be toxic to virtually every organ and physiological system in the body, including "the liver, the gastrointestinal system, the blood, the skin, the endocrine system, the immune system, the nervous system and the reproductive system," according to the fact sheet. Additionally, the EPA has classified dioxin as a "probable human carcinogen."

As of 1998, according to the fact sheet, 19 states had issued 59 "fish advisories" for dioxins. "These advisories inform the public that dioxins have been found in local fish at levels of public health concern," the fact sheet said. "State advisories recommend either limiting or avoiding consumption of certain fish from specific waterbodies or, in some cases, from specific waterbody types [such as] all freshwater lakes or rivers."

Whether a public health warning is issued for Humboldt Bay shellfish remains to be seen. The Environ study itself or a summarized description of it has been distributed to several government agencies, including the state Department of Health Services, the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, the seafood safety unit of the California Food and Drug Branch, the state Department of Fish and Game and the Humboldt County Health Department.

A public health advisory could be devastating to the bay's oyster industry, the largest in the state. Oysters grown in the bay are distributed to restaurants and markets up and down the West Coast.

The Environ report analyzed 12 to 24 oysters collected from nine commercial beds on June 21. The beds are owned by Coast Seafoods, Inc., and the North Bay Shellfish Company. Additionally, oysters and mussels were tested from a storage platform located in the Mad River Slough near the Sierra Pacific mill. Environmentalists and Sierra Pacific consultants clashed on the following issues related to the report.

  • Disagreement about the amount of Humboldt Bay oysters that can safely be consumed.

The report says that the dioxin levels, which range from 0.8 to 4.3 parts per trillion, are "well below" the 25 parts per trillion limit identified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as "a level of concern" in terms of cancer risk.

Environmentalists said the FDA "benchmark," as it's called, is 21 years old and is seriously outdated. They cited a more current standard -- the EPA's "monthly fish consumption limits for dioxins/furans" (an associated substance). That limit, meant to identify an acceptable cancer risk, recommends against ingesting more than 1.2 parts per trillion of dioxin per month from eating fish. Most of the oyster samples that were analyzed from Humboldt Bay contained dixoin at levels in excess of this standard. Wenning, of Environ, acknowledged that the environmentalists "are not wholly incorrect" about the FDA limit being outdated. However, he said there is no newer FDA standard.

  • Disagreement about how the dioxin levels in Humboldt Bay oysters compares to oysters from elsewhere.

The report emphasizes that the levels are comparable to commercial oysters grown at other locations in the U.S. The report also stresses that oysters in British Columbia near pulp mills contain twice as much dioxin as Humboldt Bay oysters.

Lappe said the assertion that dioxin levels in Humboldt Bay oysters are comparable to U.S. oysters elsewhere is misleading. He said the report itself indicates that Humboldt Bay oysters contain more than seven times as much dioxin as the U.S. average for oysters.

  • Disagreement about how the average daily intake of dioxin from consumption of Humboldt Bay oysters compares to dioxin intake from other food sources.

The report says that on average people get more dioxin from eating foods such as eggs, milk and beef than they do from eating Humboldt Bay oysters.

Fred Evenson, an attorney with the Ecological Rights Foundation, said that this is misleading because the report uses average intake figures based on the entire U.S. population. "Most Americans don't eat Humboldt Bay oysters, so it comes as no surprise that the average American will take in more dioxin from other sources."

Evenson and Lappe both said that Environ's entire risk assessment is based on the assumption that the average American eats about three oysters a year. That, apparently, is the intake level if consumption is averaged out over the entire population rather than limited to the 10 to 20 percent of the population that eats shellfish.

If you separate out the subset of the population that eats Humboldt Bay oysters, for example, then the consumption of those oysters -- along with the dioxin they contain -- goes up, Evenson and Lappe said.

So far, it does not appear that a scientist uninvolved with the litigation between Sierra Pacific and the Ecological Rights group has had time to review the report, completed in the third week of July. Researchers with the state Health Department and the health hazard office (which has the power to issue public health advisories for fish) who were sent the report were either on vacation this week or otherwise unavailable for comment.

Susan Warner, executive staff director of the state Regional Water Quality Control Board, declined to comment on the report, noting that her agency does not deal with public health matters. Warner said, however, that she suspected that there would be additional sampling of aquatic life in the Mad River Slough and possibly in the commercial oyster beds out in the bay.

In early June, the board asked Sierra Pacific to draw up a workplan to perform a "human health and ecological risk assessment" of the slough, which has long been a popular fishing spot. That decision was taken after dioxin was found in mussels and crabs in the slough by the Ecological Rights group.

Clock ticking for RV park tenants

With less than 60 days remaining before Ebbtide RV Park closes for good, several tenants are hoping to get a reprieve so that they can remain on the property. The problem for those few tenants is that they live in converted school buses or older model trailers and the other mobile home parks in the county will not take them.

Ebbtide officially closes Sept. 28. In September 2001 the 80 tenants who were living in the RV park were notified of Humboldt Bank's plans to develop the 29-acre property off Hwy. 101 on the north side of Eureka. Humboldt Bank purchased the property about four years ago.

People began leaving the park in February. About 20 trailers still remain on the property, however, management expects most of them to pull out before the deadline comes. Of those who remain, two are living in converted buses and several others live in trailers older than 10 years old.

One woman, who has been at the park since August 1999, said she was told back then that the park would eventually close.

"It's no big shock. It's been rumored for years," she said.

Steve Shelby lives with his wife and 11-month-old child in one of the converted buses. He, too, learned about the park's closing a year ago, but he questions why the bank is forcing tenants to move when there are no plans to develop the land. He says the bank is primarily interested in its corporate image since the RV park sits in front of Humboldt Bank Plaza.

Shelby, an out-of-work architect, said he is going to try and sell his converted bus, but he doesn't know where his family can move. He lacks the money for a first and last month's rent, security deposit and references necessary for moving into an apartment. The Humboldt Bay Housing Authority has a waiting list 400 names long for public housing, he said.

Bank officials confirm there are no plans for the land as yet. They may pursue a lot split and develop or sell the unused parcel.

"It doesn't make sense for us to be in the real estate business," said Paul Ziegler, president of Humboldt Bank. "It's not the line of business we want to be in." The income derived from the RV park doesn't warrant keeping the site open either, he added.

City officials say that any development will take considerable time since the land is in the coastal zone and has wetlands and flooding considerations.

-- reported by Geoff S. Fein

Elk River logging likely to stop

A new order from the Regional Water Quality Control Board is likely to stop logging in the Elk River Watershed by Pacific Lumber Co. from Oct. 15 until May 1 of next year.

The order, issued by Executive Director Susan Warner, does not specifically halt operations. Instead, it bans all sediment discharges into the Elk River, which was listed as "sediment impaired" several years ago. That in effect puts a stop to logging since it's all but impossible to log without releasing sediment into waterways.

The basis of the order, according to Warner, is that further sediment discharges will seriously impair "the beneficial uses of state waters."

This order appears to validate the residents of the Elk River watershed, located southeast of Eureka, who have long maintained that their drinking water supplies have been ruined by erosion from the company's logging. Under state order, PL is shipping in drinking water supplies to some watershed residents.

"They feel their property rights have been trampled on by Maxxam and PL for years," said Bill Bertain, the lawyer for 23 Elk River residents who have filed a suit against PL. "And now they've (the water quality control board) finally taken some action."

The order comes after years of wrangling by environmental groups and residents to hold the company accountable for damages to the watershed. The company paid out a settlement to residents of the tiny town of Stafford after the town was buried by a landslide in the rainy winter of 1997.

Cynthia Elkins with EPIC in Garberville said it was disappointing that logging would continue until mid-October and that the rate of logging would probably increase in coming weeks. "Its going to be scary to see what happens to the places that have been stripped bare if there's another big water event," Elkins said.

Rancheria sues city

Is flushing the toilet a sovereignty issue? Blue Lake Rancheria is suing the city of Blue Lake to find out.

The lawsuit, filed late last month, is in response to a declaration the city of Blue Lake made in June that it would withhold sewer and water services from Blue Lake Rancheria if the casino didn't respect the city's concerns.

The city is worried about the consequences of an expanding and prosperous casino right next door. It is particularly worried about the potential traffic load if the casino hosts sporting events like boxing matches.

While Blue Lake City Manager Duane Rigge maintains that "we have a legal obligation for enforcement," it is not clear that the city has any jurisdiction over the casino.

The casino, as property of an Indian tribe, is exempt from California environmental law.

Rancheria officials could not be reached for comment.

Rigge said sewer and water service would not be shut off without due process.

"We're not talking about shutting off the water on Saturday morning after a loud party Friday night," Rigge said. "We're talking about a process that would have hearings and notices, taking probably three months to a year."

Caltrans 1, PacBell 0

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Pacific Bell may have lost the first round of its lawsuit against Caltrans over whether the state can impose right-of-way fees to lay fiber optic cable alongside Highway 101. But that doesn't mean it's over.

"The court did not grant our preliminary injunction, so now we're moving on to the fact-finding stage of the case," said the appropriately named Bobby Lawyer, Pacific Bell's attorney. "It's just like any other litigation."

The utility giant had been seeking a temporary injunction to stop Caltrans from charging a $6.40 fee for every linear foot of high-density polyethylene duct (1.25-inch pipe made out a material similar to Kevlar that the cable would be run in) installed along its right of way. That would add $2 million to $3 million to the $4 million price tag for the remaining 21 miles of cable (an additional $2,128,896 for exactly 21 miles.)

Pacific Bell claims the fee is arbitrary and unprecedented, as well as illegal under federal law, and has halted construction to pursue its litigation.

According to Caltrans lawyer Ronald Beal, there is no reason for the construction to halt.

"They could've paid our fees under protest and then sued for reimbursement," Beal said. "That remedy has always been available."

He added that the same fee was charged in three other cases of right-of-way use in California.

Once it gets started, whenever that may be, the line should take three to four months to complete. The fiber optic line, which would link Eureka to Ukiah, is considered essential to the Humboldt Bay region's growth by business and education interests.

Trees vandalized

Arcata police and city workers are hoping to catch the person or persons responsible for chopping down 14 trees in city parks and for topping two trees.

A part-time employee with the city's Environmental Services department noticed the downed trees while photographing restoration work at Westwood and Shay parks.

Vandals chopped down or topped off a variety of trees including redwoods, cedar and spruce trees. Topping a tree prevents it from growing upward.

"It's just malicious vandalism," said Mark Andre, deputy Environmental Services director. "(I) hope it doesn't go any further than that." The cost to replace the downed trees, which were purchased from a nursery, could run as high as $850, Andre said.

This isn't the first time trees have been felled or topped in city parks. In May someone destroyed trees at the Community Center. That act of vandalism cost the city $2,000.

"We never found out who was doing it," "Andre said.

Yakima expanding

Rumors to the contrary, WaterMark, Inc., the parent company of Yakima Products, has no plans to leave Arcata.

In fact, the company says its Arcata workforce will increase in size by as much as 10 percent once a planned facility expansion is completed in early 2003.

Additionally, the company -- which also has offices in Idaho, South Carolina and Tijuana, Mexico -- is relocating some functions to Arcata. A top executive will be based here as well.

Yakima is best known as a manufacturer of vehicle roof racks.

Concerns about the company's future surfaced last week when six employees in Yakima's Purchasing Department lost their jobs as part of a restructuring. Two of the workers were retained in different positions, Dean Hart, vice-president of marketing, said last week.

By February 2003, WaterMark, Inc., plans to add about 9,500 square feet to its Arcata facility. Between 16 and 25 jobs, ranging from marketing to sales to design engineering, could be added with next year's expansion, Hart told the Journal last week.

The company last expanded its Arcata operations in September 2000, increasing the facility from 43,000 square feet to its present 55,000 square feet.

One of the functions that will be shifted here is the company's computer systems. Additionally, the company announced last week that it was promoting Jim Clark to chief operating officer. Clark is selling his home in South Carolina and moving here.

"The message to the community is that WaterMark Gear (is) not going anywhere," he said. "(We are) investing in our infrastructure and our people."

As for the recent job losses, Hart said they were connected to a reorganization of the purchasing department. The department is being split between the company's manufacturing facilities in South Carolina, Boise, Idaho and Tijuana, Mexico. The plans have been in the works for about eight months, Hart said.

Prior to the reorganization, Yakima employed 172 workers. The total workforce at the facility is now 168. In 1990 the company had 80 employees.

Fire danger continues

Open fire restrictions are in place for the entire Six Rivers National Forest -- from the Oregon border south to Mendocino -- because of the high fire danger resulting from dry weather conditions.

As of Monday, the southern edge of the Sour Biscuit fire had come within about 3.7 miles north of Gasquet and Highway 199. If the fire should burn within 2.7 miles, residents in Gasquet and Hiouchi will be evacuated.

The 24,000-acre fire runs from the Oregon/California border south to Highway 199.

Only open camp fires in specifically designated areas will be allowed.

The effect of the fires on the Smith River National Recreation Area won't be known for sometime. But if the South Biscuit-Zone 2 fire destroyed a lot of vegetation, significant flooding could occur said Terry Roelofs, professor of fisheries at Humboldt State University.

"Big fires and big floods have (in the) short term, devastating effect," he said.

The Smith River is well known for white-water rafting.

Co-op restructuring

The layoffs are apparently over at the leaner, meaner North Coast Co-op in Arcata. In all, 15 percent of the work force, or about 30 employees, have been laid off or quit.

The layoffs were part of a restructuring following two years of operating at a loss, said Patrick Cleary, interim general manager. The Co-op is expected to be back in the black by next year, he added.

"My first priority when I got here was to improve the quality of financial reporting," said Cleary. "If you don't get good information, you can't make good decisions."

Further cost-cutting measures are being taken as well. The Coop recently complete the sale of the Cutten Family Market, which was considered for a third store, and is planning to use the cash generated to reduce debt and refinance loans.

Fasting for the forest

At first, Blake Odom thought it was crazy to stop eating in order to draw attention to the plight of the Mattole watershed. But after 22 days ingesting nothing but water, Odom feels she is making an impact.

She arrived from Jacksonville, Fla., July 4 to become a tree sitter in the fight to save a rare old-growth Douglas fir forest from being cut down. But she soon decided on a different course: She would begin fasting.

Odom, 19, said she isn't trying to get the attention of the timber industry or of the political powers-that-be. Instead, she views fasting as a way to get her message out to people she encounters every day. She sees her action as a spiritual calling. "There is an urgency to focus attention on the Mattole any way I could do it," she said.

The first few days without food went by easily for Odom. But by the third day she began to have stomach pains.

"I never doubted I'd continue," she said. "But (there were) days I thought I was going to die."

But Odom persevered, and now she's deep into her fast with no end in sight. She'll begin eating when something inside of her tells her to end the fast.

"I think I could go pretty long," Odom said. "I'm feeling strangely great."

Odom periodically stations herself in front of the Arcata Co-op alongside a sign explaining that she is fasting for the forest. Along with the occasional blank stare, she has also gotten puzzlement -- some have asked why she is risking her life for trees while others have questioned her sanity.

"Fasting seems like a strange concept to them. They can grasp three to four days, but 22 days -- they're taken aback," Odom said.

Odom said she is also getting a lot of advice on fasting from friends, although she jokes that there isn't much advice one can give about not eating.

Her friends have been supportive of her protest, Odom said. Now they're asking her what she'll want to eat once she stops fasting.

"I'm craving bananas and tofu."

-- reported by Geoff S. Fein


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