The company deemed responsible for nearly causing an environmental catastrophe on Humboldt Bay and the Samoa Peninsula may be walking away while public agencies pick up a more than $16 million price tag for the cleanup, according to local and federal officials contacted by the Times-Standard this week.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has deemed Evergreen Pulp Inc. as responsible for allowing tanks filled with caustic liquors at the Samoa pulp mill site to deteriorate and fill up to the point where the next major rainfall could have caused the chemicals to spill into the nearby bay.


The EPA states it paid $15 million for the 2014 emergency cleanup — five times more than was first reported to the Times-Standard in 2014 — in which tanks containing the pulp liquors were drained and loaded into trucks bound for a Washington state pulp mill where the chemicals would be reused.


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Humboldt County is preparing to spend $1.3 million to prevent a slowly expanding plume of chemically contaminated groundwater it’s known about since the early 1990s from seeping into Humboldt Bay — if it hasn’t already — and to further examine the health risks thereof, which remain unknown.


County Public Works environmental analyst Todd Becker said the county, regional water quality control board and local engineering consultants will work during the next year to determine how far the groundwater and soil contamination has reached.


Recent groundwater tests indicate chemicals left behind by a former Eureka gas station and dry cleaning facility stretch about 700 feet northwest from the Humboldt County courthouse to an empty lot on Second Street. While Becker said there is luckily no concern about drinking water contamination because of there being no groundwater wells in the region, he said the potential for chemicals to leak into the bay could impact recreational users and local fisheries such as the bay’s shellfish industry if not addressed.


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While the front cover of this season's Vanity Fair bears the standard celebrity mug (Emilia Clarke, who plays Game of Thrones' dragon-riding queen Daenerys Targaryen), on pages 84 through 89 you'll find an article about efforts to preserve California's vibrant coast — and one familiar face.


Humboldt Baykeeper Director Jennifer Kalt was interviewed along with several other Golden State water protectors highlighting sustainability efforts up and down the coast. In the article, which you can read here, Kalt discusses her promotion of sustainable oyster farming and the importance of zeroing in where you can make a difference.


“I know people feel really overwhelmed, but if they just focus on the one issue they really care about they can make so much of a difference,” says Kalt in the article, written by Bruno Navasky.


Reached for comment, Kalt added that it's "great" that the work of water defenders is getting national attention.


"We work at the local level to restore clean water but across the state, we have similar problems like mercury in local fish, E. coli at our beaches, polluted runoff, and struggling salmon populations," Kalt wrote in an email. "More than half of the rivers and streams in the country fail to meet one or more water quality standard. Bays and estuaries are in even worse shape. So now is not the time to be weakening federal protections for clean water — if anything, we need stronger protections than ever, especially at the state level. Being part of this network is critical for developing solutions, whether it's through science, statewide policy or citizen lawsuits."


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When it comes to a recent Humboldt Baykeeper study of mercury levels in Humboldt Bay fish and shellfish, the group’s director Jennifer Kalt said there’s good news and bad news.


The study found that men, women and children of all ages should avoid ingesting unsafe levels of mercury by taking leopard shark out of their diets. The study also recommends women under 45 years old and children avoid eating lingcod above 10 pounds.


Weekly serving amounts for other species — such as bat rays, California halibut, black rockfish — are also recommended to be low, according to the study.


However, Kalt said it was good news to learn that Chinook salmon, clam, mussels and other species could be safely eaten at higher quantities.


“It’s not about scaring people off of eating fish altogether,” Kalt said about why they conducted the study, “but there are a couple in Humboldt Bay that are to be avoided and a couple that are considered to be high enough in mercury that they should be consumed in moderation, especially in children.”


With Humboldt County’s largest bivalve bash — the Arcata Main Street Oyster Festival — fast-approaching, oyster and shellfish lovers can rest a little easier. Based on mercury levels in oysters from Humboldt Bay, the study recommends men, women and children limit their oyster consumption to 7 servings per week.


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For the fifth consecutive year, Humboldt County beaches placed on a pretty gross Top 10 list.


Clam and Luffenholtz beaches placed fourth and sixth respectively on the environmental organization Heal the Bay’s Beach Bummers list because of poor water quality — specifically from fecal bacteria contamination.


Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services supervising environmental health specialist Mario Kalson said the Beach Bummers list used data collected by the county as part of its state-mandated beach monitoring program.


Both Clam and Luffenholtz beaches along with Trinidad State Beach and Moonstone Beach are considered impaired waters by the State Water Board, Kalson said.


Humboldt Baykeeper director Jennifer Kalt’s environmental organization has also sampled other watersheds throughout the county for fecal bacteria contamination, specifically in Janes Creek in Arcata and Little River. “What we found suggests the source in Little River is likely to be septic systems and that the sources in Arcata in Janes Creek are not really known at this point,” Kalt said.


Kalt said past studies suggest that the sources of fecal bacteria at Clam and Luffenholtz beaches are human-sourced rather than from wildlife. Previous studies by her organization and the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control found no fecal bacteria contamination in areas with minimal or no human activity, such as state and national parks and timber company lands, Kalt said.


Heal the Bay’s report card shows the beaches at the north side of Mad River mouth had an A+ grade, which Kalt said further suggests that the contamination is human-caused. “People say it’s probably just birds, seagulls and harbor seals,” Kalt said. “There is a high concentration of wildlife there.”


Kalt said she is really hoping that the county’s genetic analysis of the fecal coliform in local streams will point to the primary problems and lead to solutions.


Earlier this year, the state approved a Humboldt County plan for overseeing wastewater and septic systems. Kalson said that the Local Area Management Plan will require the county to review impaired watersheds and identify septic systems that may be contributing to the contamination.


In the meantime, Kalt and Heal the Bay suggest that people avoid swimming in waters at these two beaches for three days after significant rainfall to avoid potential infection.


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