November 16, 2006
SLOG TO THE SPOILS-TO-BE: Warm air smelling like sawdust blew from the southeast up the Samoa Peninsula, and you could hear the loud whine of machinery at the pulp mill. A breathy repetitive clank. The wind brought a new load of wood chips from the Fairhaven wood-fired power plant to scatter along the road sides.
Down on the beach, where bright green piles of washed-up sea grass bunched like a temporary jungle alongside the foamy surf, a few people and their dogs were already going through their paces. Though the prediction was rain, sunlight soaked through a thin film of clouds. It was morning, about half an hour past low tide.
I walked north, following a path through the dunes between beach and road. Past exotic, red-tipped green iceplant masses draped like ponchos over dune tops, through exotic bush lupine, around clumps of non-native European beach grass. Here and there an empty soda bottle, a candy wrapper. Other than the trash, it didn't make the walk less beautiful, the dunes' alien apparel. I was alien, too, on my way to see the mouth of an alien, 15,000-foot black pipe -- at the end of its complicated journey through a portion of Humboldt Bay -- jutting out over the beach and dumping a dark, fine, silty murk onto the pale sand.
Finally I saw the sign, posted high on a grass-covered dune that dropped cliff-like to the beach. Its text was small and I had to scramble up the dune's crumbly edge to read it. "Public harbor works in progress," it said in all caps. "Marina maintenance dredging underway. Every 7-10 years it is necessary to perform maintenance dredging on various marinas and docks along Eureka's waterfront." Etc., etc. The gist: From this November till next March, there'd be bay goo spilling onto this beach. The water would temporarily lose its clarity, tiny beach denizens would temporarily be choked, but the waves of winter would handily scour the gunk away. Come springtime, the beach would return to normal. The resurrection would begin. Meantime, said the sign, there were other beaches along the spit visitors might enjoy.
The plastic pipe was just beyond the sign (and another sign stood beyond it), propped in the crook of a raw, vulnerable-looking sawhorse of lumber planted in the sand at the base of the cliff. Wouldn't a big wave or storm take it out? Anyway, nothing was coming out of the pipe, although it looked like something had at some point the night before. There was a pool beneath the pipe, and liquid had spilled from it to the ocean, forming a down-cut delta coated in a slippery black slime. It stuck to my boots an inch thick. Scraping my soles on a log didn't work, so I walked into the surf where salt water did the trick.
A man and two dogs approached. Scooter, the caramel-colored dog, detoured to check out the pipe and orange plastic fencing. Digby, the black-and-tan, frolicked across the silt and then dug three deep holes rapidly, sand and broken clam shells flying. Miles Hayes, who walks Scooter and Digby here a couple times a week, stared calmly at the little pond and the slick film of sediment. "It reminds me of exploratory oil drilling," he said. He saw that back in New Mexico when he was a kid. "They didn't find anything ... but the devastation they left behind," he said. It didn't seem like a judgment, really -- just an observation.
I waited awhile at the pipe. Every few minutes a drop fell. A couple stood at a distance and stared at the pipe then turned around. The tide crept in, licking at the slick delta. I left. A few days later, on the phone, David Schneider, principal of the consulting firm leading the project, said they'd done a trial run of the pipe but were still working out the bugs. A rock had lodged in a section of pipe below the Samoa bridges, and they were replacing it. That's the beauty of that pipe, he said -- something happens to a section, they can lift it out and put in another and then get the obstruction out. And, yes, there would soon be more gunk flowing from the pipe, never fear. "But it's not oil," he said, alarmed at the notion. "There's no oil in it. It's stuff that's organic that's coming down the river, the fines that settle out in the bay."
-- story and photo by Heidi Walters
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