The Port’s Plan to Poison


Why the Log Pond cap won’t work

An article in a recent Bellingham Business Journal detailed the debate over whether the toxic muck in the Whatcom Waterway ought to be dredged or capped.

G-P dumped tons of mercury into the bay during the course of their operation here. Elemental mercury is known to convert to a dangerous, bio-accumulative neuro-toxin as it is incorporated and released from microbial processes. The tragedy in Minimata, Japan, was caused by mercury releases into their bay and afflicted the population with crippling neuropathies.

Dredging could create a short-term release hazard and would impose the burden of finding someplace to dispose of the stuff. That’s the problem with a clean-up. It’s expensive. Capping, on the other hand, is relatively cheap. But it is unproven, particularly for catastophic events like earthquakes or tsunamis. Caps are also susceptible to ship scour (agitation from a ship’s propeller) and erosion, as from wave action or the channels cut by streams like Whatcom Creek through the mud at low tide. A cap doesn’t necessarily prevent release. It will likely mean lower releases over a longer term, but requires perpetual monitoring and remains vulnerable to physical trauma.

The Business Journal article discussed the experimental cap placed on the relatively protected log pond - one of the really hot spots - and the damage it has already incurred from wave action in the bay. Port officials remain optimistic, noting that wave action only damaged the cap near the waters surface - which varies tidally by as much as fourteen feet of elevation. They believe that they can repair and armour the cap to prevent further damage or release.

This is bunk and they know it. The proof will come years from now when mercury levels in the capped sludge can be compared to present day levels. If levels are reduced, the cap failed. Oh well. It will be too late to do anything about it then. This is exactlythe same strategy G-P employed in dumping their stuff: Put it somewhere where it will just “go away”.

Above is an illustration of why a cap will not prevent releases. Roughly three feet of rain annually falls on Sehome hill and soaks into its largely pervious surface. This water will inevitably flow downhill, as groundwater, washing mercury out of the log pond, into the bay. Some believe this is responsible for lower than original mercury levels in the nearby Chem-fix dump, where an estimated 15 tons of mercury was illegally buried on the G-P site. This dump was capped with an impervious asphalt surface in the 1970’s, but that did not apparently prevent it washing away into the environment. Somehow, officials have managed to completely ignore this important physical charateristic of the site. Capping the inner waterway may be equally susceptible to this process, especially when the outer waterway is dredged, opening the soil profile to the bay, where groundwater can easily escape.

Interestingly, when industry makes unpermitted releases, they are subject to fines and liable for damages. However, there appears to be no established protocol for dealing with unpermitted releases evidenced by a lowering of concentrations within remediation sites managed by regulatory agencies. That’s good for the agencies, I guess.

Too bad for us, though.

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 [...]

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