Swift Creek, loaded with asbestos and heavy metals, is getting out of control

A rainy autumn is worsening the Swift Creek landslide, and a long-term fix seems nowhere in sight.

A rainy autumn is worsening the Swift Creek landslide, and a long-term fix seems nowhere in sight.

The side of Sumas Mountain, laden with asbestos and soil-killing heavy metals, is sliding slowly but steadily into Swift Creek and then into the farmlands of north Whatcom County and—eventually—southern British Columbia. Excessive rains over the past two months have made this sticky problem even worse, and the Whatcom County Council will get an emergency briefing on the problem on Tuesday, Dec. 6.

The sediment, carrying asbestos and high levels of magnesium and other metals, is piling up so quickly at the Oat Coles Road bridge over Swift Creek that it threatens to block the channel entirely.

“We will dredge what we can below Oat-Coles bridge on Monday (not terribly effective when the water is running) and prepare, as a last resort, to remove the bridge deck,” county Public Works Director Jon Hutchings told NWCitizen in an email on Friday.

Council member Rud Browne isn’t on the Natural Resources Committee, which will meet at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in council chamber, 311 Grand Ave. in Bellingham. But he will attend the meeting, and he has shown keen interest in fixing the daunting problem at Swift Creek. A long-term fix, for now just a plan in need of funding, involves finding places to store the sediment, diverting the creek, and stabilizing the landslide—all at a cost of “dozens of millions of dollars,” county officials have said.

“The asbestos in the sediment is less of an immediate concern,” Browne said on Monday. Studies of the health impacts of the asbestos-containing sediment strewn about the Sumas Valley floor have been inconclusive. High levels of magnesium combined with a highly unusual lack of phosphorus in the Sumas Mountain landslide mean plants can’t grow in the sediment. The real problem, Browne said, comes when the sediment buries farm fields.

“If we had a catastrophic discharge, it would destroy all that farmland—thousands of acres,” Browne said.

The council member said he appealed to our congressional delegation in Washington D.C. for financial support, the last time he went there.

“My point to them was, this is a significant problem that needs significant funding,” Browne said.

Funding to at least start a long-term fix was within reach during the 2015 session of the state Legislature, but state Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, surprised county officials by voting against it. He instead put his support behind a new water pipe for Lynden, to get that city into compliance with its water-rights permit. A bill to fund that pipe had failed after Lummi Nation opposed it, citing concerns about Nooksack River flow levels for salmon. Ericksen didn’t take the credit/blame, but legislators found a way around the tribe’s effective blockage of the Lynden water pipe bill; they wrote the pipe into the capital budget instead.

It’s not clear if or when a fix for the Swift Creek problem will get funded. The rainy autumn—60 percent more rain than usual in October and November—served to underscore the severity of the problem, which this year may force the county to take out a bridge.

A local expert on landslides in general and Swift Creek in particular happens to be a former county council member. Geologist Dan McShane (who I had relatively easy access to because he’s my employer) was on the council from 1999-2007. He appreciates that the current council has an uphill battle at Swift Creek (my pun, not his).

But he said doing nothing wasn’t really an option.

“From a health perspective, is doing nothing a good idea? It’s probably the worst idea,” McShane said.

About Ralph Schwartz

Posting Citizen Journalist • Member since May 23, 2014

After writing for NWCitizen for five years, Ralph Schwartz helped launch a new Whatcom County newspaper, Cascadia Daily News, joining the staff in December 2021 as government reporter. Before the Daily [...]

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