Fort Bragg’s Georgia Pacific mill site dispersed tons of fly ash — the left over residue from burning wood — to several locations on the Mendocino Coast before the company closed the mill in 2002. The McGuire Ranch is one of those fly-ash destinations. But, Georgia Pacific’s in-kind gesture has turned into a toxic legacy. Some of that fly ash contains hazardous levels of dioxin.
According to the State’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the McGuire cattle ranch is the second coastal location GP has contaminated with dioxin. Local residents believe there are more.
“Podesta Farms — these are places where we know there are fly ash is for sure. The soccer field in Mendocino, GP laid out fly ash before they put out the lawn. The Redwood Elementary School… There are many gardens that received or bought fly ash,” said Thais Mazur with North Coast Action, the local GP watchdog that is advocating for an adequate clean up of the Georgia Pacific mill site and surrounding areas.
Fly ash is a natural soil amendment, rich in carbon. It’s used for agricultural and landscape projects. Roughly the size of the City of Fort Bragg, the 256-acre McGuire Ranch received fly ash from the century old timber mill from 1992 to 2002. Due to burning of municipal wood from landfills during its last years in business, some of that fly ash contains high levels of dioxin, a cancer-causing toxin.
At the McGuire Ranch fly ash was used to fertilize grazing land for cattle. An estimated 2.5 acres are contaminated with dioxin as high as 91.7 PPT (parts per trillion). That’s more than two times the safe level established by the DTSC.
“Over 90% of our exposure to dioxin is through diet — meat, poultry, milk, eggs… It’s probably more than 95%,” said Kimi Klein toxicologist for the DTSC.
The fact that cows were grazing on land contaminated with toxic levels of dioxin was a concern of some two dozen coastal residents who attended the first public hearing on cleaning up the McGuire Ranch on Tuesday, July 14th. Many wanted to know what was being done to keep cattle out of the area.
“How is Field 14 being used right now?” asked Howard Innis, a coastal resident. Tom Lanpharr, DTSC Project Manager for the Georgia Pacific clean-up, replied, “I’m not sure if the McGuire Ranch is keeping cattle off the field. We haven’t asked them.”
Absent from the night’s meeting were owners of the ranch. (This reporter made unsuccessful attempts to reach them.)
Mazur asked if the cows from McGuire Ranch would be tested for dioxin levels. Klein replied, “With respect to testing their fatty tissue, there’s a certain risk of trying to do [that] on a wild animal that’s not used to being confined — they’re relatively free ranging.”
Klein explained testing cows for dioxin could render mixed results, since cattle do not live on the ranch for long. “The cows are bred and raised to about the age of eight months and are then sold,” said Klein. She added the cows roam everywhere on the 256 acre ranch. Klein estimates it takes eight to fifteen years for dioxin contamination to show impacts on humans.
Mazur described dioxin pollution as a “ticking time bomb.” “People may be feeling good now and may not see the big deal of dioxin, but wait ten to fifteen years down the line,” she said.
Klein says although the US has no base level for dioxin on agricultural lands, anything over 40 PPT will be excavated. “That is, if you had a big huge bag of rice that had 1 trillion pieces of rice, we’re talking about 40 pieces of rice,” said Klein.
But in some countries, continued Klein, it’s even lower. She said two countries have 10 PPT of dioxin as a maximum safe level and one or two countries wanted 5 PPT for safe dioxin levels. “In Europe as well as parts of the United States going down to 5 is economically impossible to do, especially for agricultural lands,” said Klein.
In some countries safe levels of dioxin are much higher. In Finland, said Klein, the safe level of dioxin is at 500 parts per trillion.
State scientists say it’s unnecessary to cordon off the pollution at McGuire Ranch, despite belief that the cows have directly eaten from the dioxin-laden soil. “There’s not a reason to do that, this is a small area on a ranch that is 256 acres,” said Lanpharr. In an attempt to calm the attendee’s concerns he continued, “In a few weeks to a month we could be removing that soil.”
The 2.5 acres slated for removal from the McGuire Ranch is near Airport Road and a tributary of Virgin Creek. According to a fact sheet from the DTSC on the McGuire Ranch Draft Removal Action Workplan, “3,900 cubic yards” of soil will be removed starting in September. According to the fact sheet, “Approximately 250 truckloads will be required over approximately three weeks to transport the soil to the designated landfill.”
The plan includes 250 trucks that will travel through Highways 20 and 101 to Bay Area landfills. That’s 16 dump trucks of dioxin-laden soil a day, traversing Highway 20 during the months of September and October. The cost of the clean-up is an estimated $850,000 with just under half of that going towards transportation.
The contaminated dirt will likely go to the Hay Road Landfill in Vacaville, or the Keller Canyon in Pittsburg, California. “That amounts to putting it in someone else’s backyard,” said Innis.
Instead the small majority of attendees wanted to know what else could be done to deal with the pollution — like mycoremediation, or the process of using mushrooms to dissolve dioxin. It’s a process with potential, according to researchers in Sweden and the US.
Dioxin is like a heavy metal. It cannot be remediated — it accumulates. The only way to deal with dioxin, a natural substance, is to contain it. But scientists with New Fields Laboratories have proposed a bench study to test the viability of mycoremediation. Ridding dioxin pollution this way would mean no more hauling it off to another area; it could be contained on site although the mushrooms would need to then be disposed of.
As another good faith gesture, Georgia Pacific has promised to finance a mycoremediation bench study. If viable, the use of mushrooms to remediate dioxin could, as stated, be more economical than hauling pollution from one area to another. But, the good faith talks stalled earlier this year.
“New Fields worked for one year to create a bench test study and they say GP derailed communications by saying ‘we don’t want this’,” said Antonio Wuttke with North Coast Action.
“GP has not intentionally slowed this process down,” replied Chip Hillardes, GP’s Project Manager, who also attended the July 14th meeting. Responding to public pressure, Hillardes agreed to pick up the conversation and resume “talks.”
“But,” he continued, “we’re not going to wait to do clean up for a technology that might work.” Hillardes explained, “It’s a multi-year process. The study we’re talking about doing can be done in several months and we’re gonna move forward with that. But in terms of making the technology available, that’s going to take time. So, in our assessment, we need to move forward and address these clean-up issues while we do this study, and if it’s applicable to what’s going on, we can apply it.”
The meeting ended with GP and DTSC scientists agreeing to resume talks about the mycoremediation bench test. But even DTSC scientists want more “scientific details” than were provided by New Fields, according to Lanpharr.
Meanwhile, the McGuire Ranch will be the second, but not last, toxic area GP is taking responsibility for cleaning up. Traditional methods of remediation will continue to be employed, including haul-and-removal or cap-and-contain.
Currently, the Coastal Trail area of the former Georgia Pacific mill site has a two-acre cap-and-contain site where sealed dioxin pollution as high as 300 parts per trillion remain. Coastal residents like Sheila Dawn, who also attended the meeting, call it a “toxic dump” as the dioxin remains there in perpetuity.
With stalled talks over mycoremediation, and a two-to-three year study ahead, should one be implemented, by then the entire 456-acre Georgia Pacific mill site could be remediated. Dioxin pollution could be capped and housing development projects begun. What’s next is not necessarily a Lovers Lane scale mega-development, but it could be close, as GP continues to dangle the carrot of magic mushrooms before coastal activists.
Public comment on the McGuire Ranch Draft Removal Action Workplan is due by August 7th. The DTSC is working on an anonymous tip line for people who know of private and public lands where fly ash from Georgia Pacific was disposed of.