Alarm over lack of dioxin testing at Glendale mill site planned for cannabis facility

The location of the planned cannabis processing facility. Humboldt County image

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

GLENDALE – The county Planning Commission’s review of a Glendale cannabis manufacturing project has exposed a lack of testing for dioxins on former mill and lumber storage sites, which could have implications for drinking water.

​Considering the stakes, one commissioner described the lack of testing as “ridiculous.”

​The uncertain contamination status of the project site eclipsed concerns about volatile manufacturing and an assumed link between cannabis and crime as the commission reviewed the project at its September 5 meeting.

​Four special permits were approved for three new buildings on a Glendale Drive parcel just east of the Route 299 Exit 4 onramp and off ramp. The buildings will house enclosed butane cannabis manufacturing, non-volatile manufacturing, processing and distribution facilities.

The new cannabis facility. Humboldt County image

​There were concerns about those uses from neighboring residents. But a more entrenched issue soon became apparent.

​The project site was the lumber storage area of the former McNamara and Peepe Lumber Mill, whose main operations were conducted on an adjacent parcel. The use of wood preservatives led to soil contamination and in the mid-1990s, the state ordered remedial actions, including capping at the main operations site.

​As of 2003, both sites were deemed to be free of contaminants. But in late 2018, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) declared that contaminants in the soil beneath the capped area had seeped into groundwater whose levels had risen.

​Ryan Plotz, the attorney for the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, warned of potential effects on drinking water. “The district is seriously concerned that the project’s construction and operation will result in contaminated soils and groundwater flowing into the nearby Hall Creek, which flows into the Mad River and ultimately into the district’s downstream intake wells,” he said.

​Plotz said groundwater levels of toxic pentachlorophenol (PCP) have “skyrocketed” since the sites were deemed uncontaminated in 2003.

​Both the county and the project’s applicant, Michael Brosgart, relied on the most recent documentation on contamination status – a letter from the DTSC  which states that there is no PCP contamination of the project site’s soil or groundwater.

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​Plotz said the letter is based on the outdated site investigations from 2003. “As a general matter, it is wholly inappropriate to rely on 16-year-old soil data,” he told commissioners.

​Jen Kalt, the director of Humboldt Baykeeper, highlighted a void of testing that took commissioners by surprise.

​“What’s really important is that no dioxin sampling has been done on the soil of this property at all,” she said. “And these sites need to be tested for dioxins, not just pentachlorophenol – just as you would test old buildings for lead and asbestos, every lumber mill site in this county needs to be tested for dioxins.”  

​Kalt added that PCP has a short half-life – much shorter than that of dioxins – and its absence doesn’t indicate dioxins aren’t present.

​She said in 2003, Eureka’s Simpson Plywood Mill tested clear of PCP contamination. “Baykeeper’s experts sampled for dioxins and found tens of thousands of times the levels of dioxins that are considered to be safe by the U.S. EPA,” she continued.

​Kalt added that stormwater runoff from the cannabis project site will “run right into Hall Creek and into the Mad River – if that soil is contaminated with dioxins, that’s going to carry right into our drinking water supply.”

​After the public comment session, Planning Director John Ford asked for a short break to research responses to what had been said. When the meeting resumed, County Planner Cliff Johnson said the 2003 evaluation is what’s being relied upon and “the issue here” is PCP contamination of groundwater, which is slight at the sampling well nearest the project site.

​He added that the project’s installation of water and sewer lines won’t be deep enough to disturb groundwater and the county “is positive that there is no soil contamination on the site.”

​With the dioxin issue neglected, Commissioner Brian Mitchell asked whether “dioxins were ruled out as a possibility in this soil.”

​After a pause, County Planner Caitlin Castellano said, “We are assuming that it was not used onsite, if they did not test for it.”

​“It was in the penta – dioxin is part of pentachlorophenol,” said Kalt from the audience.

​“If dioxin is part of PCP, that was tested and was not shown as occurring on the site,” said Johnson.

​Saying he is “admittedly informed by Baykeeper but I do think they have a point here,” Commissioner Noah Levy said dioxin needs to be tested for separately.

​Commissioner Melanie McCavour said she’s researched the situation, which concerns her as a biologist. The project’s construction phase won’t impact groundwater, she continued, so that aspect is “immaterial” and she questioned why it was even being discussed.

​The “real issue,” she said, is runoff from the site. “This is our drinking water supply – why aren’t we out there testing to see what’s going into our drinking water supply, why are we laying this on cannabis operations? It’s ridiculous – it really is, we should be testing this on our own.”

​She added that testing former mill sites “should be part of what we do with public money.”

​Although he alluded to cost issues, Levy said his preference is to condition the project’s approval on further testing. He added that it’s probably not fair to put the responsibility on the applicant, as other projects and development proposals in the area are forthcoming.

​Former lumber sites are common in the county and testing them is cost-prohibitive. “If you want to bankrupt the county – that’s step number one,” said Ford, the county’s planning director.

​Brosgart was asked if a condition of further testing for dioxins is feasible for him to carry out. Blindsided, he said it’s hard to know.

​“It’s a little late in the game for this,” said Commissioner Alan Bongio, adding that Brosgart has done everything that has been asked of him up to this point and “it’s not fair, in the eleventh hour, to throw that on him.”

​Levy agreed, but “regretfully” voted against approval of the project. His was the only dissent vote as the other four commissioners voted to approve the permits. Commission Chair Bob Morris and Commissioner Peggy O’Neill were absent.

​Satori Lounge

Also at the meeting, commissioners approved a conditional use permit for a cannabis café and lounge affiliated with the Satori Wellness Center at 1551 Nursery Way near the intersection of Heartwood Avenue.

​The lounge for cannabis smoking, vaporizing and ingestion will be part of the three-unit complex that also includes Satori’s dispensary and distribution facility.

​At first Satori will sell readymade food and non-alcoholic beverages but if demand is apparent, a full service kitchen offering cannabis-infused items will be added.

​Hours of operation will be 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays.

​Mitchell pulled the permit approval from the meeting’s consent agenda to discuss the potential impacts of allowing onsite cannabis use near neighborhoods.

​County planning staff said the approval is similar to those for bars or alcohol-serving restaurants and the behavior of patrons is outside of the commission’s land use per view. But a Satori representative said there will be a security presence.

​Mitchell lives near Satori but not close enough to require recusal from the discussion. Due to the proximity, however, he abstained from voting.


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