The Mill Pond Challenge Published in the Fort Bragg Advocate May 5, 2016.
The Recent Mill Site Cleanup Meeting
A large crowd gathered Thursday night, April 21 to hear the latest report from DTSC - the State Department of Toxic Substances Control - on the cleanup progress at the mill site. Many were concerned about the apparent plans to leave the mill pond inadequately cleaned. The reason we question G-P’s plans is due to their actions in the past.
The G-P Mill closed its doors in 2002. They had been trying to sell the mill since before the closure. They should have started the cleanup of the toxics immediately, but did not. There was no effort at cleanup or transparency until the community forced them to start a cleanup process. Ever since G-P has moved very slowly. Due to the delays they have been under threat of fines for noncompliance by DTSC since February of 2007. These fines could be as much as $25,000 a day.
G-P has sued former owners in a legal maneuver that drew our city into a very expensive and dangerous corporate power play. G-P lost in their attempt to assign financial responsibility to Fort Bragg.
In another failure and trust destroyer, they built a containment vessel for toxic soils excavated from the coastal trail area and stored them on another part of the mill site. This was done because the community didn’t want our toxics dumped in someone else’s back yard. The containment area failed in the first big rain. “A big rain in Fort Bragg?” Can this really have been an accident? This created a crisis in which all the material was immediately hauled away. This is what G-P had wanted in the first place. Now it appears G-P is attempting to do a cleanup action that will enable the connecting of the coastal trail and then skate away from the larger cleanup challenge of the mill pond. We must not let this happen.
Earthquake, tsunami and sea level rise must be at the top of our concerns in any discussion of the mill pond. DTSC told us on the 21st that the Water Board tells them the mill pond will be safe, suggesting that it is structurally robust enough to deal with earthquake, tsunami and sea level rise. I don’t believe it. There is just no way that old leaking and cracked structure can be made safe in an earthquake or a tsunami, and sea level rise is happening. We have to stop avoiding these facts. Given the pressure they are receiving from G-P, it is easy to see why DTSC is tossing this hot potato to the Water Board’s Division of Dam Safety.
The solution to this problem is a more open process. We need a process in which trusted, community supported restoration ecologists are directly involved. Toxic materials must be stored somewhere safer and dryer and in less contact with people and heavily used sensitive environmental habitat. Not “away.” There is no away. In the larger conversation it is the responsibility of our society to help communities like Kettleman City and others that are storing the toxic legacy of bad business practices. So, in the short run our community must take these soils to a designated, "sacrifice zone." As repellant as that idea may be. It is too much to ask that Fort Bragg solve these systemic mistakes on our own. If we are ever going to get out of the worldwide crisis of toxics from industry and the poisoning of our biosphere, we are going to have to face this legacy. A thorough cleanup is in G-P’s best interests.
DTSC said a number of encouraging things at their last meeting. The community supports the excavating and hauling off of the problem sites identified in the RAW – Remedial Action Work plan. DTSC indicated that the Coastal Commission feels the cleanup should not impede daylighting. If the Coastal Trail needs to be reclosed to do work on the mill pond they will do that. A concerted educational campaign to prepare our community for reclosing is necessary if we are going to rush into connecting the trail. This means clarity about toxic sediments and mysterious debris in the mill pond. After decades of use as a dumping ground the mill pond will likely give up a host of mysterious and potentially hazardous items. It is easy to loose sight of the fact that there is a risk to humans and the terrestrial ecosystem for every day the toxins stay in place. These risks increase dramatically once the trails are connected.
Since the dredging and carting away of the toxins in the mill pond will require diverting the water, this should be part of G-P’s responsibility. The daylighting and estuary design should be a part of the planning. This will likely involve some sort of man made filtering of storm water, as well as constructing of the lowland estuary. Our community will be able to raise funds for environmental restoration, creek daylighting, water polishing and carbon sequestration.
The most heartbreaking moments of these DTSC meetings are the testimony from members of our community, who feel they were poisoned by past practices of the mill and tell their personal stories of cancer and loss. We need a mill site “truth and reconciliation” process. This is a larger process that will require honesty, openness, cooperation and forgiveness in order to find a genuine path forward. Communities all over our nation are facing similar challenges.
To be successful we need to gently separate these issues. Restoration of wetlands and the daylighting of creeks can be one piece of this process. It is a good doorway to open in our search for truth and reconciliation. Recovery and regeneration through restoration and cooperation is our strength. This is in all of our best interests.