JN 2003 - SPI settles suit

Sierra Pacific Industries has agreed to a $1.2 million settlement that requires it to clean up contaminated soils and groundwater at its Arcata Mill, located near Manila.

The agreement also requires the company to study the levels of pollution in sediment and aquatic life in the Mad River Slough, a popular fishing and crabbing spot immediately adjacent to the plant.

If those studies show that pollution from the mill poses a risk to human health, wildlife and the environment, then the company must undertake a more extensive cleanup -- one that could mean digging up and hauling away tons of contaminated sediment in the slough and even out in Humboldt Bay.

"Hopefully, this will ultimately help put people at ease about eating fish and shellfish from Humboldt Bay," said Jim Lamport of the Ecological Rights Foundation, a Garberville group.

David Dun, a Eureka lawyer representing SPI, said that even before the settlement agreement it was "a foregone conclusion" that some level of cleanup would need to be conducted at the mill site.

The settlement is the result of a lawsuit filed three years ago by the Ecological Rights group. The suit spurred the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board to more vigorously regulate the mill, site of a groundwater plume contaminated with high levels of a now banned wood treatment chemical called pentachlorophenol.

Penta, as its called, is usually associated with dioxin, one of the deadliest of all man-made chemicals.

Last spring the Ecological Rights group found low but still potentially hazardous levels of dioxin in shellfish near the plant. Later tests conducted by an SPI consultant found dioxin in commercial oysters out in the bay, but there is disagreement about whether those levels pose a health hazard.

In October federal magistrate Judge Maria Elena James of San Francisco ruled that the Arcata Mill had been in chronic violation of the Clean Water Act for several years.

Almost half of the settlement -- $500,000 -- will go toward the California Fish and Game Department for wetlands restoration and acquisition in Humboldt Bay. The remainder will go to the Ecological Rights group.

Fred Evenson, a lawyer for the group, said the money would be used in part to conduct "confirmation sampling" to ensure the accuracy of SPI's environmental and health study.

-- reported by Keith Easthouse