Harbor District, feds create plan to get caustic liquors off peninsula
The United States Environmental Protection Agency has taken over the Samoa pulp mill site and initiated an emergency response to remove millions of gallons of caustic liquids, much of which are currently stored in failing tanks.
EPA has stabilized the situation, and is now working with the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District on a plan to remove more than 4 million gallons of pulping liquors from the site. Adding urgency to the effort is a constant fear that a large earthquake could lead to a potentially disastrous spill into the sensitive environmental habitat and economic engine that is Humboldt Bay.
When the district decided to take over the abandoned mill from Freshwater Tissue Co. in August, it was well aware of the daunting challenge of having to remove the pulping liquors — a caustic byproduct of the pulping process. It appears the situation was a bit more dire than the district may have known.
EPA federal on-scene coordinator Steve Calanog said he was in the area working on a clean-up effort on Indian Island in midAugust when Harbor Commissioner Mike Wilson asked him to take a look at the mill site, which closed in October 2008. Calanog said he realized the severity of the situation as soon as he got on site.
“It got my attention, that’s probably very safe to say,” he said, adding that he was immediately alarmed by the condition of the facility and its proximity to Humboldt Bay. “I was concerned there was an imminent and substantial threat of endangerment to folks who live around the facility and Humboldt Bay.”
Several weeks later, Calanog returned to do a more thorough assessment. On Sept. 30, he officially initiated an emergency response action, federalizing the site under EPA’s control.
The largest concern, according to Calanog, was that the tanks housing the pulping liquors — which have a pH of 13 or higher — were built in the 1960s.
“Tanks, especially in that marine environment, suffer significant corrosion,” Calanog said, adding that some of the tanks’ roofs were damaged, meaning rain water was leaking in, raising levels and increasing pressure on the tanks.
Perhaps the most alarming thing, Calanog said, were four large concrete tile tanks that look like silos. While the tanks were designed to store pulp slurry, at some point in the last handful of years, the containers had been filled with the much more caustic pulping liquors. Calanog said the liquors could be seen seeping out of the sides of tanks.
“They’re not designed to store caustic materials, and there’s evidence the tanks are failing,” he said.
Since taking over, EPA crews have stabilized the site, bringing in temporary storage tanks to alleviate pressure from those that were failing and controlling small leaks to make sure liquors don’t run off into the bay. Calanog and the district are now working on a plan to get the liquors off the peninsula. A pulp mill in Longview, Wash., has agreed to take on and reuse the liquors, but transporting millions of gallons of highly corrosive liquid is no easy task, especially without a rail line.
“There’s no rail system and I don’t want to put a thousand trucks over a mountain — that’s asking for a problem,” said Calanog, adding that the only other option is moving the liquid by barge.
A couple of weeks ago, the district received approval to contract with a barge and tug company that can handle the material. With the largest chemical barge available only able to transport 1.5 million gallons at a time, Calanog said the project will necessitate three shipments from Humboldt to Longview — a 400-mile trek.
In the coming weeks, Calanog said EPA and U.S. Coast Guard crews will be working to construct docking and loading facilities, both on the Samoa Peninsula and up in Longview, that will include piping and pumping mechanisms to safely fill and unload the barge.
This entire process is expensive, and the district would not have been able to move so quickly without the help of a $1.25 million line of credit put forward to the district by Pacific Coast Seafoods, which is owned by Commissioner Greg Dale.
“They, of course, are extremely concerned about the impact to the oyster industry if we got a catastrophic spill,” said District CEO Jack Crider, adding that the hope is the district will be able to repay the loan through the sale of the boiler and other machinery at the mill site, which has been valued at between $2 million and $3 million.
While hurdles remain — the Longview mill is still doing chemical testing on samples of the liquors to make sure it can reuse them — Calanog said it appears the first barge load will be ready to leave Humboldt Bay sometime in mid-January. Everyone involved with the effort has raved about the collaborative response, saying the district and EPA have worked very well together to address the situation.
Dale and Crider also said North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman has been integral in working with EPA, and making sure the project will continue to receive the necessary federal funding moving forward.
“Jared Huffman has been very, very helpful, as have senators (Barbara) Boxer and (Dianne) Feinstein,”Dale said.
In a statement released Friday, Huffman praised the work of the district and the EPA in addressing what he deemed an “imminent threat.”
“This effort is critical to protecting Humboldt Bay and the Samoa Peninsula from potent contaminants remaining at the site,” he said. “Both agencies have done an exemplary job in dealing with the problem, and I am committed to seeing the emergency response through to its completion.”
While nobody can say for sure what the impact of a catastrophic spill of millions of gallons of caustic liquids into Humboldt Bay would be, everyone agrees they don’t want to find out.
“I could only speculate,” said Calanog, adding that a large spill would surely impact water quality and the sensitive habitats of the bay, and — at least from a public perception standpoint — could prove disastrous for the local aquaculture industry.
A 4.9 earthquake located about 30 miles west-northwest of the mill site on Oct. 11 only underscored the urgency of getting those liquors off the peninsula.
“It appears to have caused a few new areas where there are some new leaks on the tanks,” Calanog said. “It was an eyeopener, and evidence that we need to get that stuff out of there as soon as possible.”