Taylor Champion, an executive for the Koch brothers’ subsidiary Georgia Pacific, enlivened Fort Bragg’s wait for the fate of the old mill site with a zinger of a letter to Mayor Lindy Peters.
Champion laid it out plainly. GP is done with clean up. The mill ponds can remain the way they are. Champion informed the Mayor that if there is any remediation at the mill pond the City will have to pay half the cost. GP has a contract!
Somehow the letter leaked.
Once the cat was out of the bag, the larger City Council passed a hopeful but toothless City Resolution wishing for comprehensive remediation. Take out the dam, dismantle the ponds and get all of the dioxins out. Time was winding down for ousted city manager, Linda Ruffing. She could read her own postmortem tea leaves. Therefore in the midst of apparent official nothing, with no public notice whatsoever, Linda Ruffing, the City Manager, and Marie Jones the Development Director — the retiring general and her Executive Officer — drove down to Santa Rosa to confer with bigwigs, including every state agency having any voice at all in the future of the mill site.
When the General and her adjutant arrived, the fix was already in. The dioxins are staying right where they are. Linda Ruffing and Marie Jones attended two meetings where the whole messy business got spelled out. The key to the deal all these bigwigs had worked out for us was The Dam.
At the very bottom of the wetlands along the ocean there is an aging, leaking, half gone dam that keeps the mill ponds, the wetlands and the dioxins where they are. Now.
The dam has not been much discussed.
Only very recently, and only because of the continuing vigilance of George Reinhardt's scrutiny of mill site negotiations, has the alarming condition of the dam been brought to public attention. George noted that if the dam were to break we really would have a toxic stew steaming off the drying mud.
The dam is a problem, but it was also Georgia Pacific's key to a good bargain. It worked like this: GP has been working industriously with filings and proposals deep within agency bureaucracies to remove Pond 8 from the jurisdiction of the Department of Safety of Dams (DSDO) altogether. GP believes that the California Water Code permits them to get out from under DSOD by reducing the amount of water stored behind the dam.
If GP gets out from under regulations, they can’t be told what to do about The Dam. Worst case scenarios about earthquakes or tsunamis stirring up the deadly dioxins become more worrisome. Delay, at which GP has been shown to excel, suddenly looks increasingly threatening, especially to the regulating agencies. The prevention of worst case situations is what DTSC and all the other regulatory agencies' principle reason for existing.
DSDO (the Department of Safety of Dams) told GP and everyone at the meeting that they would provisionally accept GP's plan to lower the water and get out of close regulation.
Pond 8 must only be divided by a barrier wall, and there must be rock slope protection on the embankment abutting the ocean.
"DTSC will not require the removal of the mill pond dam under any clean up alternative," was the way City Manager Ruffing soft sold it in the Jan.18 City Notes. She is letting us know that the City Resolution asking DTSC to dismantle the ponds by removing the dam was out.
Actually what DTSC said was, "if the toxins contaminants are left in place in mill pond, DTSC would consider the dam to be a containment structure for contamination."
Therefore, long-term Operations and Maintenance (O&M) of the dam would be overseen by DTSC and their associates at the DSOD Department of Safety of Dams. The new dam will not cost Fort Bragg a dime in construction or maintenance, but it will leave the contaminants in the mill pond, exactly what Taylor Champion had told the Mayor was going to happen. They are going to give Fort Bragg a not new but a free dam and the dioxins permanently at no extra cost. They are counting on the element of surprise and hoping that we don't revolt violently.
What has happened is that the cost of the mill pond clean up has been shifted from one of the nation’s largest private companies which profited from the mill site operation for decades to public agencies. Perhaps it is a sign of the Trumpian times, certainly it is our misfortune as a city.
GP will pay for a small part of it. The larger cost will be borne by DTSC. The City of Fort Bragg is only on the hook for the impression we give visitors with our wetlands behind chain links and toxic contamination signs decorating the fence. It should make the walk past the sewage treatment plant memorable. The decomposing Skunk Train will be a backdrop.
Then of course the City eats it in another way since we have no scientific data but we do have a strong community suspicion that Fort Bragg and our region constitute a major cancer cluster. Our hospital has never conducted a study. Whole families associated with some jobs at the mill have died.
City Manager Ruffing made the announcement making the dioxins permanent as quietly as possible, burying it her City Notes.
The main takeaway of the big November Santa Rosa meeting as Ms. Ruffing puts it is "If contaminated sediments are to remain in place in the mill pond, DTSC will rely on DSOD to help identify long-term operations and maintenance requirements to ensure that the dam will adequately contain the sediments."
What she means is that the dioxins stay where they are.