Dioxin Cleanup Nearly Complete

December, 2009

Hazardous waste contractors remove contaminated soil adjacent to the site where plywood was sprayed with a pentachlorophenol mixture that contaminated the wetland channel.  Superfund levels of dioxin were found in the channel, which is hydrologically connected to Humboldt Bay and Palco Marsh.”

Photo: Michelle Smith

While controversy swirls over the proposed cleanup of the Balloon Track, a successful eradication of lethal contaminants is moving forward just down the road. 

Cleanup of the former Simpson plywood mill adjacent to Eureka’s Del Norte Street Pier is underway, eliminating a major source of dioxin to Humboldt Bay.

The project is a result of a collaboration between Humboldt Baykeeper (HBK) and Simpson Timber Company to design a cleanup plan for the wetland channel that runs next to the former mill and connects to Humboldt Bay.

The plan entails removing dioxin-contaminated sediment and restores the area with native vegetation. The result will be a safe place for local and migratory birds and other wildlife, as well as a cleaner bay for fish, shellfish, and the people and wildlife that eat them.  

In 2005, HBK discovered that although a so-called cleanup of the former plywood mill had been conducted under an order from the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, it had only addressed the contamination from pentachlorophenol, or “penta.” 

This toxic wood preservative was banned in the 1980s due to extremely toxic components that were known to cause cancer and birth defects in humans and wildlife. 

But there had been no tests for other dangerous and much longer-lasting contaminants, such as the suite of compounds known as dioxins and furans.  HBK knew from past experience with penta that these sites are invariably contaminated with dioxins, and that wherever penta was used, dioxins are sure to be found.  Despite this fact, the Regional Board had signed off on a cleanup that had looked for penta alone.

In 2006 HBK collected sediment samples from the channel and was stunned to find dioxin in the sediments as high as 89,000 TEQ (or “toxic equivalent quotient,” a concept used to create a comparative baseline for toxic contaminants). HBK notified Simpson Timber of these sampling results and filed an action against them for violations of federal environmental laws.

Later that year, HBK and Californians for Alternatives to Toxics filed suit against Simpson in order to require the cleanup of the dioxin and furan contamination in the wetland channel adjacent to Humboldt Bay. At that time the property was being used as a Flea Mart. It is adjacent to the only public fishing pier on the Bay, where many locals fish regularly for subsistence and recreation.

As a result of their federal suit, HBK was able to get Simpson Timber to the table to talk about—and eventually agree to—a full characterization and cleanup of the wetland channel next to their property. In addition to the proper cleanup, a fund was established at the Humboldt Area Foundation to support other restoration projects around Humboldt Bay. 

To get a glimpse of the work being done, head down Waterfront Drive toward the Palco Marsh—you will be able to see the cleanup and replanting in action. 

Michelle Smith is a staff attorney for Humboldt Baykeeper