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Hog Fuel Hidden in Plain Sight

No one knows just where it goes or what it’s doing to Bellingham Bay
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In the mills they called it “hog fuel,” that countless tonnage of waste wood ground into small bits, from sawdust size to an inch or two. For decades it’s been coming ashore near the northwest corner of Bellingham Bay. Property owners complain about long piles as much as six feet high that smother plant life and keep shoreline dwellers from enjoying the beach. For years, Lummi fishermen told of “sawdust drift” clogging nets, making it impossible to fish.

What it does to the bottom of the bay is unknown, and seems likely to stay that way.

A researcher named Todd Eastman, working on a modest grant from the state Department of Ecology, set out four years ago to find a practical way to clear the piles of wood waste from the beach at Cliffside. Just as he was ready to start, the waste suddenly disappeared from Cliffside, to pile up on the Fort Bellingham beach, a few thousand feet away.

Over the next couple of years, Eastman’s project morphed from cleanup to detective work aimed at understanding the nature of the waste, its history and its likely impact on the bay. His unpublished 2011 report is an unusual blend of science, historical research and firsthand observation.

Now, given new revelations of how badly things are going for sea life in Bellingham Bay (see Cascadia Weekly, Jan. 15), Eastman’s work deserves a second look. He makes a strong case for boring into the bottom of the bay, chemically analyzing the stuff that comes up, and assessing its effect on the creatures that live there.

The migrating hog fuel is a byproduct of Bellingham’s smoky history, dominated by the money and political power of the timber, pulp and paper industry. State law and local attitudes combined to provide eminent domain over Washington’s public waters, for those in the business of booming logs and manufacturing paper.

(According to Wiktionary, “hog fuel” is a legacy of the strong Scandinavian influence in the Northwest. The Norwegian term for “chopped” or “hacked” is hogde. Americanized, it became “hogged” and, inevitably, “hog.” Now it can be told.)

At the pulp mills, they burned as much hog fuel as they could, producing heat used in making pulp and paper. They couldn’t burn it nearly fast enough, and millions of tons had to be disposed of, somewhere.

Eastman put us in touch with Jim Haynes, who knows where a lot of it went. The 69-year old Intalco retiree grew up on Eldridge Avenue and used to watch barges haul wood waste into the Bay, from the vicinity of the Georgia Pacific plant.

“Two or three times a week the barges would go out with huge loads of chipped up bark,” Haynes said. “They’d go out a few miles toward Eliza and they’d come back empty.”

Other residents provided similar accounts, and Eastman made an interesting calculation: one barge making two trips a week could have dumped 2.21 million cubic yards of waste into Bellingham Bay in 20 years.

The activity would have ended in the 1970s, when the federal government began enforcing the Clean Water Act and other anti-pollution laws. Eastman found state and local records from those years that show the timber and pulp companies scrambling to buy upland waste disposal sites and obtain landfill permits.

“This may be a big deal, or it may not,” Eastman says. “The thing is, we don’t know where it is or what it’s doing. It may be just a minor issue that deserves investigation, maybe just an inquiry for the sake of finding out.”

Jude Apple doesn’t think the issue is minor. He’s a marine ecologist at WWU’s Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes whose expertise includes the causes of hypoxia—the absence of dissolved oxygen in water. It’s a condition that kills crabs, clams, worms and other bottom dwellers that once flourished in Puget Sound.

“We know from what’s been seen at Cliffside that there’s a very mobile amount of wood debris that surfaces and disappears and moves around the Bay,” Apple said. “What’s the old saying—‘Crap always runs downhill?’ If this wood waste flowed into the deeper areas of Bellingham Bay, it would be a perfect fuel for hypoxia.”

Apple says the sediment samples from the bay that he’s examined don’t show a lot of woody particles. However, “Nobody has really looked at it and said, O.K., let’s do a survey and see what we can find. There are a lot of resource agencies who could use the data, but nobody wants to do it on their own dime. ”

Ecology’s new and gloomy findings of a sharp decline in marine life at the bottom of the Bay emerged from “grab samples,” scoops of mud from the upper few centimeters of bottom sediments at scores of locations around the bay. Ecology’s Valerie Partridge, who authored the report, says the researchers were looking for marine life and toxins in the sediments. For that purpose the grab samples are just right—revealing and relatively inexpensive.

“Learning how much woody debris is on the bottom, and analyzing it, is much more difficult,” Partridge says. “We’d have to bore into the bottom with an augur and bring up core samples to be chemically analyzed. We don’t have the funds to do it, and it’s not part of what the legislature mandated us to do.”

Eastman believes the first and last core sampling of wood waste on the bottom of the bay happened more than 50 years ago. Dr. Richard Sternberg of the University of Washington’s School of Oceanography reported on cores taken in 1959 and 1960 at the edge of the Nooksack Delta, a mile and a half south of Cliffside and Fort Bellingham. He found that woody debris in those samples made up 30 percent of the total sediments, by weight.

Scientific studies tend to follow the money. The obvious and urgent need to detox the former GP sites, upland and seaward, ties up grant money the way decaying wood chips tie up oxygen. There’s barely enough dollars to clean up the known poisons.

Wood waste is an undramatic unknown, even if its potential for harm may be obvious. And it is, according to Barry Rogow-ski, a section manager for Ecology’s Puget Sound Initiative cleanup program.

“Let’s keep it simple,” Rogowski says. “Suppose you dump two or three feet of wood waste on your lawn and leave it for 50 years. What do you think happens to the grass? Well, the same thing happens if you dump it on a patch of eelgrass.”

Eelgrass is perhaps the most guarded and hovered-over plant in the waters of Puget Sound. It provides the essential nursery and feeding area for young fish and crabs, and it’s fragile. The shadow of a dock can threaten its survival. An eelgrass patch fated to be in the way of a migrating slug of wood chips is done for. How often that has occurred in the bay in the past century is what Valerie Partridge calls “the photo we’ve never seen.”

Todd Eastman doesn’t consider his time and work to have been wasted, even with Ecology declining to make his report public. He hopes passionately that someone will move the inquiry forward by doing the core sampling.

“The people who work for Ecology are so bright and so hard-working,” Eastman says. “But they get bracketed by the funds. They’ll keep on doing whatever the funding source says should be done so long as it involves toxics. Wood waste is obviously hazardous to marine life, but it isn’t toxic, so we don’t find out where it is and what it’s doing to the Bay.”

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