Toward a more comprehensive approach to human health and the environment

Toward a more comprehensive approach to human health and the environment

Editor’s Note:

Mercury Victims of Whatcom County is an anonymous, loose-knit organization that credits itself with having delivered the final blow that prompted Georgia-Pacific to end its Bellingham operations. They continue their work but remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation because of the magnitude of costs and other consequences the work implies.

I spent the last several weeks listening, reviewing and helping compile their individual works, offered on condition of anonymity, and present here a seemingly long but in truth quite brief summary of their findings.

In short, they believe the entire review to be inadequate to protect human health and the environment due largely to an artificially limited scope of review and continued failure to address what they consider to be a number of severe environmental crimes. Additionally, they see addressing these natural resource damages as an opportunity to more fully fund a more complete clean-up.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, April 10th, is the deadline for submitting comments on the preferred remedial option for the former Georgia- Pacific chlorine-alkali operation.

Site Information and contacts:
With links to:
• GPWest-Chlor-Alkali-Area-FS-Fact-Sheet (March 2018)
• GPWest-Chlor-Alkali-Area-Feasibility-Study-Draft-Final (February 2018)
• GPWest-Chlor-Alkali-Area-Feasibility-Study-Draft-Final-Appendices (February 2018)

Mercury Victims of Whatcom County is a loose-knit group of citizens concerned with the health of themselves, their families, friends and neighbors. We silently research, compile and share with one another information on the health effects of mercury, the incidence of debilitating chronic conditions associated with mercury exposure and the magnitude of threats discovered as mercury cell chlor-alkali facilities are decommissioned.

We have worked together informally since the days of Allie McNeil, author of Silent Fallout, who was disparaged, harassed and threatened until forced to leave Bellingham. We remain hidden because we wish to avoid the retribution she experienced for drawing attention to the crimes of Georgia-Pacific.

We have not issued any communications since originally writing Georgia-Pacific directors about prison sentences meted out to officials of LCP Chemicals in Brunswick, Georgia. G-P arrived to close the Bellingham facility within two weeks of the correspondence being sent.

Mercury Victims of Whatcom County hereby declares the remedial alternative analysis for the Georgia-Pacific Chlor-Alkali Remedial Area incompetent to protect community safety and welfare, human health and the environment. The plan suffers from:
- A scope too narrow to adequately assess the extent of existing hazards
- The lack of a competent environmental risk assessment
- The lack of a mercury mass balance analysis, and
- Any attempt to assign responsibility

Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin known to persist, cycle and bioaccumulate in the environment with serious long-term health implications that could get much worse over time. The following must be known before the range of remedial alternatives can be evaluated:

- How much mercury G-P purchased during the tenure of their chlor-alkali operation.
- How many tons of product were produced for the pulping and bleaching operations, and delivery to other markets.
- How much mercury was consumed, lost and not recovered, in production as calculated using accepted ranges empirically determined from analysis of other chlor-alkali operations using similar technology.
- The total known permitted releases to water, air, land.
- The total estimated, known or suspected unpermitted releases to water, air, land and products, for instance from the multiple hearth sludge roaster or exceedences from the cell house.
- The total quantities received from third parties, such as the return of undisposable wastes from product customers, as with the Ketchikan mill.
- An estimate of total mercury so far recovered in interim actions, anticipated to be recovered during continued remediation or left in situ.
- Calculating from the foregoing quantities, an estimate of the total unaccounted mercury that could remain unknown on site or constitute potential unregulated, unpermitted releases throughout the county.

In addition, the likely fate of mercury released to the following pathways must be evaluated. For instance:

Releases to air from the site and many solid wastes improperly disposed in the area likely remain in the Lake Whatcom reservoir and Whatcom Creek/Nooksack River watersheds. Narrowly focusing remedial efforts on the defined remedial unit overlooks an important long-term hazard. Like a boomerang, mercury carried downwind or trucked into the Whatcom Creek/Nooksack River watersheds will eventually return to this site’s proximity over time, except in much more dangerous forms. This should not be taken lightly.

In the late 1960s, certain First Nations populations in Ontario started to suffer symptoms of severe mercury poisoning. Now famously known as Ontario Minamata disease, the source of the mercury was traced to a chlor-alkali plant that operated in Dryden, Ontario starting in 1962. The plant closed in 1974 but symptoms continue to this day, more than half a century later, because a competent, comprehensive clean-up was never implemented and because mercury constantly cycles in the environment, bio-accumulating and bio-magnifying.

The nature of these risks require that a much more comprehensive approach to remediation be taken.

We consider the chlor-alkali remedial area to be the center of a crime scene of epic proportions and are concerned that agencies have been complicit in enabling these crimes. The evidence is distributed throughout Whatcom County and beyond. These joint and several crimes include but are not limited to:

- Originally permitting operation immediately upwind of an urban center after the risks to human health, food and water supplies were known from analysis of operations at Minimata, Japan.
- Allowing continued operation for decades after widely accepted health concerns forced scores of closures around the world.
- Undersizing the clarifier/thickener system, installing a cheat pipe for direct discharge to the Whatcom Waterway, and failing to recognize that the design could not adequately treat daily flows.
- Conducting a five year ambient air quality study of Bellingham without attempting to measure mercury immediately downwind of the plant.
- Purporting that cinnabar deposits were responsible for high levels of mercury in the Nooksack River which mask the rate at which it is released from contaminated bay sediments.
- Accepting the theory of Natural Recovery, originated by G-P officials, and avoiding the assessment of mercury exchange at sediment/water and water/atmosphere boundaries.
- Failing to prospect for the source of mercury in the Nooksack watershed absent any known cinnabar deposits.
- Failure to act when G-P rejected agency refusal to approve multiple unregulated dumpsites, and neglecting to fully investigate and adequately characterize the waste disposed.
- Operating the Mercury Recovery Unit, a multiple hearth furnace in which unrecorded tons of material (composed of mercury compounds precipitated from process fluids, mixed with mercury contaminated clarifier sludge, graphite anodes, coal filter media, decomposer graphite and possibly asbestos) were supposedly rendered fit for conventional land disposal but from which no mercury was ever recovered because the project never included research or development beyond vaporizing the mercury.
- Illegally dumping materials estimated to originally contain 15 tons of mercury in the Chem-fix slab, not requiring its immediate removal and failing to account for discrepancies between current and original levels of contamination.
- Discharging massive quantities of mercury vapor that contaminate downwind soils and structures and failing to monitor, measure or advise the public of the risk.
- Failure to conduct a comprehensive environmental risk assessment.
- Failure to conduct a mercury mass balance analysis.

The World Health Organization provides “Guidance for Identifying Populations at Risk from Mercury Exposure.” It is known that:
- Chlor-alkali production results in elevated mercury exposures for workers and the local community. Local, in-depth risk assessment should be considered a priority.
- Direct spills into aquatic environments can cause significant local contamination that can lead to elevated population exposures.
- Improperly disposed industrial waste can create mercury waste sites. People living near these waste sites can be exposed to elevated mercury levels due to releases to soil, air and water
- Models can be used to predict the environmental fate and transport of emitted mercury and to estimate levels in various media and biota, and estimate possible human exposures.

Studies have found that:

- Surface soils collected at sites downwind of facilities contained highly elevated mercury concentrations in comparison to local background levels, with the highest levels found within two thirds of a mile along the prevailing downwind direction.
- Wet and dry deposition of mercury vapors causes significant contamination in surface soils downwind of the plant and these contaminated soils represent a significant source of fugitive emissions of mercury that persists beyond the operational life cycle of the chlor-alkali plant.
- Mercury levels in both ambient air and surface soils in the immediate vicinity and especially locations downwind of chlor-alkali facilities are typically significantly above corresponding background levels.
- Chlor-Alkali facilities purchase much more mercury than they report releasing - and cannot and/or are not required to account for its final disposition.

A competent risk management plan can only proceed following a risk characterization based on competent assessments of hazards and exposures:
- Analysis of hazard locations
- Identification of exposed populations
- Identification of potential exposure pathways
- Quantification of relevant exposure parameters
- Uncertainty analysis for exposure assessment

Hundreds of tons of mercury have been found under individual cell house floors of decommissioned plants where floors were not designed for impermeability, rapid spill collection and production hygiene.

Sources of mercury contamination occur in/from:
- Cell room wastes: leaks, spills, cell wash water
- Caustic soda filter wash
- Hydrogen scrubbing condensate
- Storm water runoff
Air Emissions:
- Cell end box ventilation system
- Cell room ventilation
- Hydrogen by-product streams
- Exhaust gases from the retorts
- Exhaust gases front tanks
Other sources:
- Caustic soda product
- Wastewater treatment plant solids
- Raw cell room sludge (“mud”)
- Cell maintenance
- Treated mercury butter
- Retort solids
- Demolished cell room concrete

It is known that a vast range of lost and consumed mercury depend on operational hygiene, system controls and efficiency. For instance:

Between 1986 and 1989 -
- Canadian-Oxy lost on average 5+ grams of mercury per ton of chlorine produced. Another average 11 grams/ton were consumed, for about 16 grams/ton.
- ICI Cornwall lost on average 10- grams/ton. Another 18 grams/ton were consumed, for about 28 grams/ton.
- ICI Dalhousie lost 18- grams/ton. Another 43 grams/ton were consumed, for about 61 grams/ton. Mercury vapor emission
- PPG Canada lost average 5+ grams/ton. Another 123 grams/ton were consumed, for about 128 grams/ton. Over a four year period PPG added over 26 tons of mercury to their process and produced 217,373 tons of chlorine.

G-P produced approximately 90,000 tons of chlorine per year, more than half again the PPG production. Using an average from above it is possible G-P lost and consumed at least 6 tons of mercury per year. One report suggests they replaced 15 tons per year. These figures should be known and their implications evaluated.

LCP Chemicals manufactured chlorine, bleach, caustic soda, hydrogen gas and hydrochloric acid in Brunswick, Georgia from 1979 to 1994, using facilities and practices similar to those used by G-P.

In 1999, five years after closure, former officers of LCP Chemicals were tried on forty-two counts charging multiple violations of the Clean Water Act, RCRA, Endangered Species Act, and CERCLA. A jury found all guilty as charged and the district court sentenced the officers to between 4 and 9 years in prison.

The officers subsequently filed a consolidated appeal to the Eleventh Circuit where they argued that the district court had erroneously permitted the jury to convict them of knowing endangerment based solely upon their corporate positions within the company and without any regard to whether they had actual knowledge of endangerment. The Eleventh Circuit disagreed and affirmed the convictions.

Importantly, the Court decided the government may establish that a defendant acted knowingly merely by proving they had knowledge of the hazard and knew the chemical could be harmful to others. The Court concluded that testimony was sufficient to demonstrate officers knew the plant did not comply with standards and posed a danger to the plant’s employees. Former employees affirmed they had reported the plant’s deteriorating condition, compliance problems, improper procedures and associated hazards to the officers.

Since then, 225,000 tons of contaminated soils and materials across more than 40 acres of the land area were excavated and disposed of in approved, off-site landfills. Thirteen acres of contaminated marsh flats were removed and restored, along with 2,650 feet of tidal channels. More than 150 groundwater monitoring wells and 209 CO2 sparging wells were installed.

Twenty-four years after closure, work is just set to begin on another $29 million project to clean up a 760-acre saltwater marsh. Plans for work on contaminated uplands are still under review.

Former employees of G-P, the site’s downwind neighbors, residents near G-P’s unregulated dump sites and citizens suffering from chronic conditions and those concerned about long-term environmental effects have not had an opportunity to testify because no similar action has ever been brought by regulating agencies. Volunteering evidence absent the protection of witness tampering penalties is too risky, as McNeil discovered. Meanwhile, the agency that originally permitted G-P’s pollution now assist owners by subdividing the remedial area to narrow the scope and hasten redevelopment immediately downwind of a site that may still harbor hundreds of tons of elemental mercury. It works collaboratively with owners to achieve so-called cost effective remedial actions without quantifying the extent of the risk.

The opportunity for such justice remains - officially ignored.

Mercury Victims of Whatcom County believes that limiting the scope of review to the original remedial unit and subsequently a smaller subdivision prevents an adequate evaluation of continuing risks to the community. We believe a competent range of remedial alternatives can only proceed with knowledge of the mercury mass balance and a thorough environmental risk assessment. We presume such data would inform a range of alternatives much more rigorously focused on removal and that continued assessment of criminal liability and natural resource damages present a viable approach to funding a more complete clean-up.

We request that response to our comments include an explanation of
- What has been done or is being planned to address the crimes listed above,
- Why no risk assessment has been attempted,
- Why no mercury mass balance analysis has been completed,
- Why adjacent sediment transfers, downwind soils, solid waste dump sites and the source of Nooksack mercury burdens has not been investigated,
- An accounting of mercury recovered during remediation to date,
- How remediation has accounted for the sources of mercury emissions listed above and to what extent industrial remnants such as potentially contaminated piping have been removed, how much mercury was recovered, etc, and,
- To what extent assessment of natural resource damages and criminal liability continues.

We hope you will consider the foregoing and take a more comprehensive approach to reducing the risk of Bellingham experiencing its own episode of a Minamata disaster.

Thank you,

Mercury Victims of Whatcom County

About Tip Johnson

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Tip Johnson is a longtime citizen interest advocate with a record of public achievement projects for good government and the environment. A lifelong student of government, Tip served two terms [...]

Comments by Readers

Tim Paxton

Apr 10, 2018

Tip is the expert on GP mercury in Bellingham Bay.

Some other anecdotcal mercury clews : Fish in Lake Whatcom have high enough mercury content that pregnant women are warned not to eat more than one delicious bass. Fetal damage. (See the tiny sign on the back of the main sign at the motor boat launch at Bloedel Park.)  Also, the “closed” GP dump on the Y road is still leaching chemicals, including mercury in your coffee.    Bellingham children  recently had one of the highest prescription rates for Ritalin in the 3100+ Counties in the USA.  (ADT is related to mercury brain damage.)    Mercury content in Lake Whatcom waters actually exceeded the EPA minimum “safe” level. The public was not warned.    A mercury panel from DOE, WDFW, Health Dept, was held out at Squalicum High about the lake mercury had all the panel members threatened not to say anything about mercury.  They complied with the threat.  An EPA meeting held in Bellingham (at the now Sheraton) had Superfund and EPA managers who had come to listen about mercury in the water and air and ground.  The vistors all left their complimentary tap water glasses untouched.

Ask a former County Council member, what happened when they excavated a shallow test trench in the now be-graveled development area?   A puddle of dirty mercury flowed into the trench.    That ground is still saturated with dumped, spilled, and stored mercury waste. 

Who will be held liable for the stupid decision to put buildings and schools and condos down there  at the waterfront?  Taxpayers.  I.e. you. Us.  


Elisabeth Britt

Apr 10, 2018

Thank you, Tip. For a very informative article.  I’ve never been invited to join Mercury Victims of Whatcom County, but as a former Georgia Pacific employee, I do have a story I’d like to share. 

In 1981, my son was born with Mercury poisoning . After three weeks of intensive neo-natal care in an incubator - he lived. I can’t begin to describe the guilt, the horror or the fear that my husband and I felt as we watched him struggle in that incubator to survive. 

I got up every four hours to drive to the hospital to breast feed him. Just to discover a couple of weeks later that my breast milk was also poisoned. 

So, it goes without saying that I support a thorough clean up of the former Chlorine Plant site.  And, like the former Whatcom County Councilmember mentioned in Tim Paxton’s comment. I also dug holes around the mill that filled with silver mercury. One while I was pregnant with my son. My foreman instructed me to cover the hole up. But the mercury was everywhere. In the sewer lines, in the ground, in the air, the Whatcom Waterway and in the groundwater table. 

The good news. My son, after years of struggling to recover, is fine. 

Why am I concerned? I hope and pray - as a mother and parent - that no other parents ever have to face the horror that my husband and I faced when our son was diagnosed with Mercury poisoning by his pediatrician.

Bellingham citizens should demand a thorough clean up. For the sake of our children and our children’s children. I don’t wish what my husband, son and I went through on anyone. Least of all, defenseless new born children. 


Tim Paxton

Apr 12, 2018

Another anecdotal story of mercury poisoning of children.  An activist RN and her husband (EMT Nurse) and son moved Bellingham.  They “discovered” the secret pocket beaches down by GP.  The son became ill and his mother determined through testing hair samples that he had been contaminated with mercury, after only a few visits to that beach.  

People who go to these beaches should be warned.   The curious RN also bought a geiger counter and found high reading s of radioactive substances at this beach near GP.    She was of course arrested, harrassed and driven from town courtesy of the mayor and police chief.


Jon Humphrey

Apr 13, 2018

Tip, thanks for this fantastic article. It’s obvious to me that some of the GP crew needs to spend some time in jail and pay for a proper cleanup. Still, don’t expect action out of most of the port or council. For example, the only council members that would even do face to face interviews with me aren’t even considering suggesting really going after GP. Michael wants a cleanup, but it sounds like at the expense of the tax payers not GP, that’s if he’d make a solid statement at all on the topic. This sadly still puts Gene and Michael at the top of the lot for accountability when it comes to our current officials. The “best of the bunch.” They mayor asked me if I would simply print her peer reviewed answers in lieu of doing a real interview with me. Basically, she wanted to use NWCitizen as a PR firm to print flyers for her like the Herald does. I told her no and explained what ethics are. Anyway, while this mercury issue is still a big problem, our officials are similiary avoiding looking into the potential health risks of wireless technologies and seem almost totally uninterested in doing a proper cleanup of the GP site. They never stand up to unethical corporations, even when they have good cause to do so like in the GP case, Verizon and CenturyLink attacking the first amendment, etc. They say that by law they “have to let our community be taken advantage of.” They can at least try to say no, which may result in a lawsuit by a corporation, but that would have a lot of benefits as well. 1. That’s why we have lawyers on staff and that’s how the law gets changed. 2. It would bring these issues into the public eye. Which is something that corporations that have poisioned your water supply, etc. usually want to avoid. Yet, we see almost all talk on any issue that effects a corporation taking advantage of our environment, population, etc. It seems to me that our government is in the pocket of these corporations, or at the very least, lacks the spine to confront them. The hour is too late for that kind of behavior. Anyway, it seems to be their MO no matter what day and age it is. I don’t know why we keep voting them back in. It seems to me that when a corporation wants to do something, that will negatively effect the population, the health risks are always secondary to making pofits in the eyes of the council and mayor.  


George Dyson

Apr 14, 2018

[from an oral history of a former G-P employee]

    I’ll be honest with you, if they were to run a core sample all the way down to where the, all the way down to the very end [of Whatcom Waterway] ... they’d shut the whole place down, there’d be that much mercury. Down at the pulp mill, they have, they pour concrete just to hide the mercury. See, when they put in the chlorine plant, it was the newest in the nation. Mercury, and, uh, the Feds were coming in to set the standards for all chlorine plant’s mercury.
And it didn’t matter what the figures were, they just said, this is a new one, so we’re going to set the standards, OK? So before they come in, the manager of that department said, “Hey, just run mercury everywhere. Because that will become the standard.”
    Which they did. I mean, they can’t, no help, they can get better all the time, you know, over years they can do it, you know, but in the meantime mercury just run into the Bay.
    The plant went in in ’64, ’65, something like that. And I, I got into a donnybrook with one of the management, because they would bring in inventories of, they had flasks like this [gestures about an 8 inch distance with his hands] you know, like beer bottles with mercury. And they’d bring them in by the pallets. And I said, well, somebody must have, some sense, all you’ve got to do is show me your stock that you have. How come you’re using this much? I mean that’s all you had to do, is to say how much are you using? But for some reason nobody asked. And the guy, as a matter of fact, the environmental guy, he’s dead now, that used to be for GP in Bellingham here, he said the employees were stealing it and selling it to the dentists.
    I mean, can you imagine how much Mercury?... [trails off] [laughs] Oh, they’ll never clean up. Georgia Pacific got the dumb city [Port] to take over the clean up for nothing.. they got all that property for nothing. You own a gas station and close it down, you’re going to be liable for that ground for the rest of your life. You’ll never get 100%. You can buy all the insurance in the world, and you’ll never get it. So all they’ll do now is take a couple feet off the surface and bring in some clean fill dirt and put it there. No, it’s…


David Camp

Apr 17, 2018

Well the Irish adventurers developing the gp site have built out their first building- which despite being advertised as a public market site looks amazingly like a condo sales pavilion. Perhaps if their target market is mostly aged and retired the mercury is not an issue. Hard to tell regular dementia from that induced by mercury ingestion. 

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