EPA Tackles ‘Enormous Mess’ At Pulp Mill Site

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

SAMOA – Its urgency underscored by a recent earthquake, the overdue removal of millions of gallons of hazardous waste from the vacated Samoa pulp mill site has begun . It will be accomplished using trucks.

Liquor removal at the old pulp mill. Photo by Daniel Mintz

Liquor removal at the old pulp mill. Photo by Daniel Mintz

A plan to transport the caustic waste chemicals by barge ran into complications. The initial loading of tanker trucks was observed by reporters at a March 28 press event at the former mill site.

Originally planned for early February, the removal process stalled as transportation to an active mill in Longview, Wash. was negotiated. Cost factors prolonged the negotiations and with a March 9 offshore earthquake demonstrating the potential for catastrophe, truck transport was secured.

There is an immediate need to start the process because three to four million gallons of highly caustic pulping chemicals are stored in aging – and leaking – cement block silos. They are susceptible to failure; at the press event, Congressman Jared Huffman emphasized the importance of removing the pulp liquors.

He said transporting them to the mill in Washington for treatment and reuse is “a far better outcome than sending them to a landfill and certainly a lot better that letting them leak into Humboldt Bay and compromise this incredible environment that surrounds us.”

A tank failure would contaminate the bay and seriously impact its ecology and the county’s shellfish industry. “This was a disaster that miraculously did not happen,” said Jared Blumenfeld, the regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has been carrying out an emergency response at the site since last November.

The pulping liquors are only part of the former mill’s hazardous materials storehouse. Blumenfeld said an unlocked onsite lab included explosive, poisonous and improperly stored chemicals. Also being removed are 10,000 gallons of sulfuric acid and 10,000 tons of “highly corrosive sludge,” he continued.

He described the situation as unusually dire. “We don’t see this every day in California, and we don’t see this every day on the West Coast,” Blumenfeld said. “This is really an enormous mess.”

The removal of the pulp liquors, which were formerly used for pulp extraction, marks a critical phase in the clean-up. The liquors are being pumped from the failing and rainwater-infiltrated cement silos, transferred to temporary storage containers and then piped into the Washington-bound tank trucks.

Funding for the multi-million dollar clean-up is uncertain but Coast Seafoods has advanced a $1.25 million loan to the county’s Harbor District, which took ownership of the site last year.

The process will take at least eight months. During a tour of the site, EPA Emergency Response Coordinator Steve Calanog said it will be “very dangerous” to workers. As he spoke, EPA workers in hazmat suits hovered above a metal tank in a hydraulic lift as pulp liquors were siphoned out of them.

Asked about the dangers by Huffman, Calanog said the liquors would cause “an immediate dermal burn” upon contact, giving fat cells a soap-like consistency. “If it was released into the environment, it would have an immediate effect on the bay,” he continued.

If barge transport does not become available, up to 800 truckloads of hazardous waste will leave the site.

The trucks will travel from Route 255 to U.S. Highway 101, to Route 199 through Grants Pass, Ore., and on to Washington.

Calanog said the trucks will only be on the road during daylight hours.

Harbor District CEO Jack Crider said barge transport has been complicated by the cost of modifying docking facilities.

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