Samoa Beach Again Proposed for Sludge Disposal
Nearly a decade ago, a lack of planning combined with a dire need for dredging in Humboldt Bay erupted into controversy. While everyone agreed the channels needed to be cleared, the proposed dumping of dredge material on Samoa Beach divided the community with fishermen on one side and recreational beach goers on the other.
Today we find ourselves in almost the exact same situation. Dredging of Humboldt Bay has once again become an undeniably urgent matter and Samoa Beach has again been proposed as the best disposal option. Unfortunately, despite having 10 years to find a long-term solution, the Humboldt Bay Harbor District and City of Eureka are just beginning to present to the public options for disposing of dredge spoils from their marinas.
Back in 2007, the Harbor District insisted on ignoring Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidance and instead asked to dump 200,000 cubic yards of bay sludge on Samoa Beach at a popular surf spot and access point known as the Power Poles. (See page 15 for more information from Humboldt Baykeeper on sludge and dredging.)
Due to the state of emergency created through inaction, the California Coastal Commission reluctantly approved the pumping of bay mud through a pipe over the dunes, spewing out onto Samoa Beach. But the Commission, along with the U.S. EPA and California Department of Fish & Wildlife, made clear that any future projects must be better planned and that a similar project would not be a viable option in the future. In 2008, the Coastal Commission reasserted this stance.
With so much disapproval from permitting agencies and the public the last time around, why is Samoa Beach still being considered an option for dumping? In his presentation to the Eureka City Council on February 21, Eureka Parks and Recreation Director Miles Slattery described Samoa Beach as being “the best option” for disposal due to the comparatively low cost, its ability to accommodate high volumes of dredge material, and being the “least environmentally damaging feasible alternative”—with no evidence to support this claim.
In addition to the temporary outfall at Samoa Beach, Slattery briefly described other possible options for the dredge spoils, including using it as fill for wetland restoration projects, open ocean disposal at an approved site three miles offshore, “flow-lane” disposal, ocean disposal through the Redwood Marine Terminal’s one and a half mile-long outfall, and upland disposal at one of two sites on the North Spit.
In addition to ignoring all previous agency guidance, the plan to dump thousands of gallons on Eureka’s most popular and accessible beach is cause for significant concern. As we know from the last time this happened, the impacts to public access are significant—in 2007, the river of sludge created a barrier impassable to beachcombers, runners, dog walkers, horseback riders, and others who utilize Samoa and Manila beaches daily. If such a situation happens again, the City of Eureka and Humboldt Harbor District could be in violation of California’s Coastal Act, which guarantees coastal access to all.
The current proposed beach location in Slattery’s presentation is about a mile south of the Power Poles parking lot, chosen because of its “minimal recreational impacts.” Commonly referred to by surfers as Water Tanks (because of the water tank across the street) the location is now just as popular as Power Poles was 10 years ago. The entire Samoa Peninsula in general is one of the most utilized beaches in Humboldt County.
Fishermen, boat owners, surfers, beachgoers, and environmentalists filled the audience at both the Harbor District meeting on February 16 and the Eureka City Council meeting on February 21.
All parties agreed that dredging needs to happen as quickly as possible but division still exists as to how best to make it happen, with many people caught in the middle.
Feeling unfairly stuck between a rock and a hard place is mariner, surfer, and fisheries major Libby Tonning. “It is frustrating and a bummer that they didn’t get their act together and do their job sooner,” Tonning said. “But unfortunately this is where we are at now, and we are down to the wire. I hate the beach solution, but I also hate the idea of the marinas wasting away.”
“Some progress has been made since 2007—the Harbor District now owns a dredge and the ocean outfall at the former pulp mill. But much more needs to be done to develop a long-term solution,” states Jennifer Kalt, Director of Humboldt Baykeeper. “Putting forward a plan to dump spoils on Samoa Beach yet again was premature, since the permitting agencies have not yet been consulted.”
The outcome of both the Harbor District and Eureka City Council meetings was a decision to sit down with the permitting agencies to further discuss options. More technical studies may be needed to obtain the necessary state and federal permits and it seems premature to declare beach disposal the “least environmentally damaging” before all of the alternatives are more thoroughly analyzed. Test results for dioxin and other contaminants are not in yet for all of the areas to be dredged this time, but contamination will certainly have to be considered regardless of which disposal site is used.
Ultimately, the permit application will come before the Coastal Commission, which has the authority to approve as submitted, approve with added conditions, or to deny. “It’s worth noting that last time the Commission voted on this project, it only passed by one vote—and with the understanding that it would not be approved in such a way again,” said Jennifer Savage, Surfrider Foundation California Policy Manager. “We truly hope that the City of Eureka and the Humboldt Harbor District move ahead with an option likely to be approved.”
With all parties sharing a common interest in the well-being of Humboldt Bay and the surrounding coastline and ocean, it is unfair that a lack of planning is pitting constituents against each other. Hopefully, lessons learned from last time will help avoid unnecessary controversy and lead to a solution as quickly as possible.