Sitting on a Gold Mine?

The best kept secret in the west?

The best kept secret in the west?


What if public agencies were sitting on a gold mine, a mineral deposit worth potentially billions?

OK, not gold, but a large quantity of a valuable element?

The Department of Ecology (DOE) recently accepted testimony on their Bellingham Central Waterfront Cleanup Action Plan (CAP). You can download public comments and agency responses here.

During the years Georgia-Pacific (G-P) used the landfill that is discussed in the CAP, they received toxic waste shipments, including mercury contaminated sludge. One case, a mill in Ketchikan, found mercury sludge accumulating in their processing equipment after having purchased chlorine and caustic soda from G-P. There was no place in Alaska where it could be disposed of legally, so they shipped it back to Bellingham. DOE acknowledged that G-P would receive it, but there is no mention of where it went.

The DOE admits this landfill contains “metals,” but says they have found no mercury. Documents suggest only a couple small samples were tested for mercury.

In testimony, I submitted a document from the archives of the Mercury Victims of Whatcom County. Received from a high-level G-P insider, it details the chemical reaction G-P used to make chlorine and caustic soda, and estimates the volume of mercury needed to treat their pulp. I specifically asked the DOE to confirm the numbers’ accuracy, but they declined to comment.

Assuming the chemistry is accurate, the estimate must be extremely conservative. It doesn’t account for products G-P made for export by barge and rail - as in the case of the Ketchikan mill and others. The estimate is based solely on pulp G-P produced in Bellingham.

The G-P insider’s logic was simple: add up what they had to have used, subtract what they were allowed to discharge, and the balance should remain on site - unless it was illegally discharged elsewhere. According to this method, approximately 28,000 tons of mercury should remain somewhere “on site,” whether in this dump or under the mill.

So, how much is it worth? Industrial mercury is traditionally sold in “flasks” weighing 76 pounds. Around the time G-P closed their operation, a flask was worth about $150. But today’s price is fluctuating between $2,000 - 3,000 a flask. At a median $2,500, that’s only a couple bucks an ounce. But when you add it up, it’s still $1.8 billion worth. Let’s go lower, to $2,000 a flask, and assume only 10,000 tons are recovered. That’s still a half a billion dollars.

But wait! Reagent grade mercury sells online for $279 a pound. If all 28,000 tons were recovered and refined it might be worth more than $15 billion!

Why would they leave it in the ground, especially when it is so hazardous? The value could offset their remediation costs. If they don’t have a public health or environmental interest in where it went, shouldn’t the sheer value of it get their attention? Maybe they don’t believe it is there? If it isn’t, it must have been illegally discharged elsewhere. That could be worth even more!

If it is not on site and was illegally discharged, why wouldn’t authorities seek redress for environmental damages? That could help with better remediation. For example, in 2004, Honeywell International was deemed the responsible party for mercury contamination in Onondaga Lake in New York, a federal Superfund site. The state alleged that for over 24 years a company Honeywell acquired, Allied Chemical, had dumped 165,000 pounds of mercury into the lake. The state asked Honeywell to dredge and cap over 2,329 acres at a cost of $2.33 billion. The company argued for a cleanup that involved limited dredging and would cap 355 acres at a cost of $210 million. According to the Onondaga Nation, a $451 million settlement was agreed on but it will not meet basic requirements of the Clean Water Act.

By comparison, the entire G-P so-called “cleanup” contemplates an admitted total of 32 tons of mercury: they put 20 tons in the bay, and got caught illegally dumping another 12 tons on their (now our) property in the Chemfix slab. That’s less than half of Honeywell’s admitted problem, but no one is even trying to clean ours up, and the nagging question of the other 28,000 tons remains unresolved. The bottom line is that the Port of Bellingham, G-P, and AIG (insurance) agreed not to look, and the DOE has agreed that is fine.

We know it is not all here, locally. Some mercury was shipped as a contaminant in chemicals G-P marketed. The cells used for chemical production constantly leaked mercury vapor that blew into downtown. G-P heated untold tons of sludge to boil mercury into the air in an effort to save money and meet conventional landfill standards. We suspect some mercury compounds became “proprietary ingredients” in various products, such as drilling mud for oil wells or dust suppressants. Mercury hotspots have been noted around some offshore drilling sites with no natural geologic evidence of mercury. No one has yet tested lands where G-P West sold dust suppressant to their logging divisions. But what adds up to 28,000 tons?

How much of and where the mercury went are questions no one will ever answer. The World Health Organization warned that facilities like G-P’s were a threat to human health, food, and water supplies about the time G-P was given permits. At the same time, more than 30 such facilities were systematically eliminated from the Great Lakes basin after elevated levels of mercury were found in fish tissue. Such levels have also been noted in Lake Whatcom fish. But the fate of G-P’s mercury crimes remain an unexplored mystery - where public servants choose not to look, and developers and realtors will never ask.

The best kept secret in the west…

Attached Files

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

Paul K Schissler

Feb 13, 2020

Wow, Tip.  The scale of those numbers is stunning! Thank you for calling out this issue for more attention from Port officials and the other agencies responsible for protecting the public health, both human and nonhuman health. Thank you for citing reliable sources in your reports.

But where did all that GP mercury end up? 

Mercury has always been toxic, whether people ignore its presence or not.  John Servais’s NWCitizen’s column in 2004 called for action and an explanation for why Lake Whatcom had so much mercury that WDOE recommended that fish from Lake Whatcom were too toxic for human (and other creatures?) to eat.

I hope GP’s current owners realize their obligation to fix what they damaged. Or did the Port of Bellingham let them completely off the hook? 

More info, please. Thank you.


Paul K Schissler

Feb 13, 2020

This meeting may be of general interest and it may be related to mercury contamination at the waterfront: 

The City of Bellingham Shoreline Committee has a meeting today at 6 PM to discuss the 94 expensive homes in three five-story buildings right up against the Whatcom Waterway as proposed by Harcourt Development as close as 50 feet from the reported Ordinary High Water Mark.

City is accepting comments. Steve Sundin is COB point of contact at City Planning and Commuity Development Department


Michael Riordan

Feb 16, 2020

Your figure of 28,000 tons of mercury absolutely boggles the mind, Tip. How sure are you about it? I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation and came up with nine Olympic-sized swimming pools brimful of the silvery stuff. That would be awfully hard to hide.


Tip Johnson

Feb 17, 2020

Ah! But, judging from the chemfix slab DOE findings (, and assuming this “influent sludge” was generally characteristic, the concentration was likely 1,766 ppm….so it would have to be a lot larger volume, eh?


Michael Riordan

Feb 17, 2020

Yes, my calculation was for absolutely pure Hg with a specific gravity of 13.6 g/cc. For material that contained only 1766 ppm Hg, multiply by 563, or over 5000 Olympic-sized pools! 

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