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Dec. 23, 2004

The Weekly Wrap

Blue Christmas service a haven for the grieving

Remembering the Great Flood of '64

CEO: Wage cuts key to mill survival


The Weekly Wrap

FAIRHAVEN POWER TO SELL: The Fairhaven Power Co. -- a subsidiary of Eel River Sawmills that operates an 18-megawatt biomass plant on the Samoa Peninsula -- could be in new hands as early as next week. The buyer is the San Diego-based company DG Power Solutions, which operates a number of small power plants around the country. Reached at his office Tuesday, company president Steve Mueller said that Fairhaven, which burns about 250,000 tons of wood waste per year to generate electricity, was a perfect fit for his company. "It is exactly the market we're in," he said. "We are probably at this moment one of the largest cogeneration and renewable energy operators in the country." Mueller said that his company might also explore avenues to increase Fairhaven's output, possibly by adding wind or wave generators at the site. He said that DG Power Solutions also is looking at other small Northern California plants, and if those deals are successful, the company would likely establish a regional headquarters in Eureka. Mueller said that there would be no changes in staffing at the plant, which employs about 20 people. Eel River Sawmills CEO Dennis Scott could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

SAFEWAY, RITE-AID WORKERS SIGN CONTRACTS: The imminent threat of a strike at Safeway stores was averted last weekend as union representatives reached a tentative agreement with company management during marathon negotiations. Union officials reported Monday that the agreement satisfies union demands on wages and health insurance. Safeway employees had threatened to go on strike on Monday if terms could not be reached. Meanwhile, employees of Rite-Aid, which operates three drug stores in Humboldt County, ratified a new three-year contract with the chain on Dec. 15. Workers at both chains are represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 588.

ANOTHER RAILROAD SETBACK: The North Coast Railroad Authority has filed a lawsuit against a company that operates gravel barges on Sonoma County's Petaluma River, saying that repeated collisions with an NCRA railroad bridge over the last two-and-a-half years have severely damaged it. The suit against the Bay Area-based barge company Jerico Products was partly prompted by the threat of fines from the U.S. Coast Guard; according to NCRA Executive Director Mitch Stogner, the Coast Guard is looking at fining the publicly owned railroad as much as $10,000 per day, retroactive to June 2002, as the bridge has become an "impediment to navigation." Stogner said that the lawsuit would attempt to assign blame for the bridge's precarious state to those actually responsible.

SUPES, BERG ON ELECTION REFORM: The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors last week released an analysis of recent election controversies -- including shadowy ad campaigns against Eureka City Councilmember Chris Kerrigan and the recent Measure L. In it, County Counsel Tamara Falor concludes that there is not much that the county can do to enforce election law or to insist on clean campaigning except to petition state authorities to investigate. The board did send a letter to state officials asking for action against the anti-Kerrigan "Eureka Coalition for Jobs" and the Humboldt County Taxpayers' League, opponents of Measure L. Perhaps spurred by the letter, Assemblymember Patty Berg announced this week that she would sponsor legislation that would make campaigns like those run by the Eureka Coalition for Jobs illegal. State Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter) has already introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

GUILTY PLEA IN BRIDGEVILLE KILLING: Chesley Jay Evans, 36, of Fortuna pleaded guilty Monday in Humboldt County Superior Court to voluntary manslaughter and mutilation of human remains in the case of a Bridgeville man who disappeared in April 2001, said Deputy District Attorney Worth Dikeman. Burgess Kone, 55, an oil painter, was last seen at his property by a neighbor, and fragments of his body were recovered from three locations within five miles of his home, said Deputy Tim McCollister of the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office. Evans was living on Kone's property, driving his truck and using his checks after the artist disappeared, and pleaded guilty later in 2001 to growing marijuana there, McCollister said. He is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 19 to 12 years and eight months in state prison, Dikeman said.

NOGUEZ CONVICTION AFFIRMED: Rafael Alejandro Noguez, 23, the man convicted of murdering Crystal Ann Brantley, 18, and Jarliz "Raul" Amador Rivera, 26, and burying one of them under an Orick dairy barn in 2001, was rebuffed in his attempt to appeal the convictions, the DA's Office said. In his appeal, Noguez argued that the trial court failed to suppress his confession, which he said was obtained by a police officer who took advantage of Noguez's drug-withdrawal-induced psychosis. The 1st District Court of Appeal upheld the conviction.

MANILA MELTDOWN: Five of seven Manila Parks and Recreation commissioners suddenly called it quits this month, citing lack of leadership and fraud among their reasons for resigning. Joy Dellas, chair of the commission that advises the Manila Community Services District Board of Directors, said that relations between the two groups have been strained for some time, and that community center coordinator Bev Prosser is a big part of the problem and should resign, too. Prosser could not be reached by deadline. Tim Dellas, board president and Joy's brother, defended Prosser, saying that she works hard and was instrumental in getting the Manila Community Center started. Joy Dellas decided that she wanted out after hearing that Shelley Lima, Tara Petti and Felicia Ulloa had already resigned. Jay Patton quit as well, leaving Cindy Lou Vancleave and Violet Glass -- who is also a board member -- to hold down the commission. "Thousands of dollars have been put into parks and recreation and the kids here are still hoods and vandals. They have no respect for the program, and with the leadership here you can see why they have no respect," Joy Dellas said. Topping the commissioners' complaints is the charge that the Manila Community Services District sold food at Reggae on the River that was supposed to be fed to children for free. MCSD General Manager Judy Hollifield said in a written memo released this week that the MCSD will repay the Summer Food Service Program, which is funded by the Department of Education.

ABANDONED VEHICLES UPDATE: The Board of Supervisors this week revived an abandoned vehicle abatement committee to deal with cars deserted on county roads. The restoration of the committee comes on the heels of a double fatality caused by an abandoned boat trailer that was pushed into Myrtle Avenue in Eureka. Cody Wertz, 19, and Timothy Robertson, 21, were killed on Dec. 4 after the pickup truck they were in collided with the trailer. The California Highway Patrol is investigating the accident. Supervisor Jimmy Smith said that the county recently upgraded illegal dumping ordinances to make county codes more consistent with state laws. Under the new rules, which came into effect this week, Smith said that fines and penalties for illegal dumping will be raised considerably -- from $500 to a mandatory fine not exceeding $1,000 and/or six months in jail -- and that the process to dispose of abandoned vehicles has been streamlined.

NEW LEADERS FOR LOCAL GOP: It looks as though Blue Lake resident Mike Harvey, chair of the Republican Party of Humboldt County, will soon be moving up in the world. In February, Harvey is slated to replace Randy Ridgel, a retired Lake County rancher, as the North Coast's representative on the California Republican Party's board of directors. Ridgel got the California GOP into a bit of hot water last year when, during an intra-party spat, he defended the idea that Southern blacks suffered far worse during the "draconian" post-Civil War period of Reconstruction than they did during slavery itself -- the ex-slaves' problem being that the "poor devils had no experience fending for themselves." Meanwhile, the Humboldt County Republicans will choose new leadership at its regular meeting on Jan. 13. As of press time, the only candidate for Harvey's position as chair is Lori Metheny of Arcata, a recent transplant from Tehama County who was active in party politics there.

YUROK TRANSPORTATION: The Yurok Tribe is seeking community input in an effort to establish a Tribal Transportation Plan that would help tribe members and others living on the reservation get to where they need to go. The project, which is funded by an Environmental Justice grant from the California Department of Transportation, is still in its early stages, but tribal Outreach Coordinator Neil Peacock said last week that a number of ideas are already being floated. Among them: a regular jet-boat ferry linking tribal headquarters in Klamath with residents as far upstream as Pecwan. People interested in getting involved in drafting the plan are encouraged to contact Peacock at 482-1350, ext. 365.

Blue Christmas service a haven for the grieving


The lights were dim last Wednesday night at the First Congregational Church in Eureka. As a small group gathered, a piano played some of the more contemplative songs of the season. Candles illuminated the chancel.

While most churches are literally ringing with celebration at this time of year, First Congregational and First Christian Church in Eureka decided to devote one evening to a "blue Christmas" service -- a service for those who are sad, grieving the loss of a loved one or a relationship, or simply not feeling the joy of Christmas.

"This is a new service that we felt there was a need for in the community," said Rev. Carlotta Vallerga of First Congregational. "Not everyone is full of the joyful spirit. There's a lot of pain and hurt and sadness. [Christmas] brings it out in them, and they need to be able to express that."

Vallerga and Christine Tomascheski, the pastor at First Christian, led the congregants in scripture readings, prayers and hymns. At several points during the service, those present were invited to come forward and light a candle in remembrance of a loved one, in acknowledgment of pain or in hope of peace and healing.

Stephanie Schultz of Eureka said she has been struggling with the death of her father earlier this year. When she heard about the service on the radio, she decided to attend.

"When you're in the midst of grief, you just want people to understand," said Schultz, 56. Ordinarily, "people either ignore your pain or try to get you out of it, [by saying] `You gotta keep going!' That doesn't really do it.

"If we had just sat there for a half hour and not done anything, it would have been worthwhile. Because I knew there were other people around who knew what I was going through."

Many churches throughout the nation hold "blue Christmas" services, though this is a first for Humboldt County. (There is, however, a public "service of remembrance" put on each December by Chapel of the Ferns-Sanders Funeral Home in Eureka.)

Janet Foos of Eureka, a member of First Congregational, said Christmas is an especially difficult time for many people.

"Holidays are when we do so many things with our loved ones that their absence is so obvious," she said. Also suffering are those who don't have family and friends. "I'm sure the fact that everyone else is buying presents and feeling joyful, if you didn't have anyone to share the holiday with, it could be hard," she said.

Vallerga said she plans to hold another "blue Christmas" service next year.


[photo of three newspapers with headlines reading "The Thousand Year Flood," "Pepperwood wiped out, other towns crushed!" and "Imprisoned by flood, 10 persons wait in terror"]
Remembering the Great Flood of '64

Forty years ago this week, Humboldt County experienced a Christmas like no other. With very little warning, the skies opened up -- raining down up to 40 inches of water in a matter of a couple of days -- and rivers began to climb up their banks. Before the Great Flood of 1964 was over, whole towns along the Eel had been swept downstream, bridges destroyed and much of the county left isolated and shell-shocked. Twenty-nine people lost their lives, killed either by the ferocious torrents that had arisen out of nowhere to engulf their homes or during brave efforts to rescue the stranded.

Troy Nicolini, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said last week that there's nothing stopping another flood on the scale of 1964 -- but advances in our ability to detect incoming weather patterns and monitor river levels mean that most of the price paid in human life 40 years ago would likely be avoided. "The one thing that's changed is technology," he said. "Mother Nature and human nature haven't changed. We can still have a flood that big, and we can still have human error that can cause tragedy. But if that same flood happened today, we wouldn't lose 29 people -- even though we have more people in the area."

CEO: Wage cuts key to mill survival


The fate of the only remaining pulp mill in Humboldt County is beginning to resemble a chess game with a time clock attached.

In a meeting with mill management Monday, union leaders said no to an extension of temporary wage cuts they agreed to in September, cuts that were part of a proposed management-worker buyout, company officials said. Union leaders are betting that the rank-and-file workers, who normally make an average of $47,000 per year, will still be working after Jan. 1 and that on that date, their 15 percent "temporary" wage concession will be restored.

"Our position is to wait and see what the Chinese have to say," said Norman Miller, president of Local 49 of the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, referring to the Hong Kong group that has expressed interest in the mill. "They have an interest in the mill. They have been buying [pulp] from us for the last three years. They have deep pockets."

"[Union] leadership said no yesterday," said Steve Fleischer, CEO of Stockton Pacific Enterprises, owners of the mill. "This morning, some workers at the plant said, `maybe'" they would consider a more permanent wage.

"Back in September we all, as individuals, had to decide between 85 percent [of our salaries] and a job or 100 percent and no job," he said. The wage cut included about 125 union employees and about 50 nonunion and management workers.

Fleischer said extension of the wage cuts is not the only thing that has to happen to save the mill, but it's the linchpin. If the union and nonunion workers agree, he is prepared to go back to his financial backers and try to reinstate his offer to the bank that was withdrawn Monday.

How credible was that offer?

"Very credible. After evaluating my dollars and the people backing me, the bank deemed it credible," Fleischer said. He declined to name his backers except to say they were chip producers -- "the big guys" -- who stand to lose a convenient local buyer of their waste product.

The largest chip producers in the area include Simpson Timber Co., Pacific Lumber Co. and Sierra Pacific Industries, according to one industry source.

Fleischer said in addition to the workers, major vendors have been patient. The Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District receives weekly payments from the mill but is still owed about $280,000.

Officials of the Chinese company, Lee & Man, last contacted Fleischer about Dec. 15, saying they, too, are still interested in purchasing the mill but they needed a month to evaluate its assets before deciding to make an offer.

Fleischer said he has a fiduciary responsibility to stockholders and must evaluate any and all proposals to save the mill, including a competing offer from the Chinese company or one led by former CEO Brent Hawkins.

Hawkins told the Journal Tuesday he had made the bank, PPM Finance of Chicago, an offer last week that was rejected. He said since Fleischer withdrew his offer Monday, he thinks his own chances of being a successful bidder are enhanced.

Hawkins also declined to name his financial backers except to say he has one local mill, another in Oregon and an investor from Seattle.

One thing is certain, Hawkins said: A lot of good-paying jobs are at stake.

"It's not just the 170 jobs at the plant," he said. "How are the smaller mills going to keep running if they can't get rid of the chips? Simpson and Palco may have a plan, but all the rest are going to struggle."

He said other workers who may be affected include "up to 1,000 people cutting wood and 200 truckers."

The current debt on the mill is about $30 million, according to Fleischer. That includes one note held by PPM Finance of $24 million. The debt in 2001 was more than $80 million when it was sold by Louisiana Pacific Corp.

"Everyone has taken a hit since 2001 -- stockholders, everyone," said Fleischer, and that is why he is hopeful the workers will agree to wage cuts. He said he is also hopeful the Jan. 1 deadline can be renegotiated with the bank, workers and vendors.


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