NOOKSACK - What's coming out of the ground on Sumas Mountain may be natural, but government officials view the material in the landslide above Swift Creek as toxic waste. Government solutions will be difficult and expensive, they say.
The slowly moving landslide contains metals that are harmful to farm soil. The more immediate health risk, however, might come from natural asbestos in the landslide. The microscopic asbestos fibers, also found in some construction materials and insulation, can cause lung cancer if inhaled.
After a flood in January 2009, high levels of asbestos were found in soil deposited along the Sumas River as far north as the Canada border. Excessive sediment from the slide worsens flooding on Swift Creek, which runs into Sumas River.
The poisonous material kills most life in and along the creek, which means viable salmon habitat is out of the question.
Whatcom County has been dredging the landslide material out of Swift Creek and piling it along the creek's banks. The solution, officials admit, is not farsighted. There's only so much space for the piles, and the material erodes back into the stream when it rains.
"The county has been trying to figure out what is the long-term solution to this problem," said Ellie Hale, a project manager at the Environmental Protection Agency. "The old solutions no longer really are acceptable."
New solutions are contained in a plan that is tentatively scheduled to be presented for Whatcom County Council approval Aug. 6. The council also will consider the plan's first actions, which were designed to reduce the amount of sediment moving downstream.
The plan is intended to fix all of Swift Creek's problems by reducing the spread of asbestos, protecting farm fields from flooding, and restoring salmon habitats.
What's unknown on the eve of the council vote is how the projects would be funded. A rough cost estimate for the first phase - building sediment traps in the creek, adding sediment basins along the creek's edge, and building levees to further contain the sediment - is $7.1 million, according to a Tuesday, June 25, staff report from county Public Works.
A high-end estimate for the cost of the second phase, which includes property purchases to re-route the north fork of Swift Creek, is $14 million.
A property tax set up to pay for flood projects in the county brings in more than $3 million a year, but that money is used to pay for multiple projects, so the plan will need more than that, said Roland Middleton, a special projects manager for Public Works.
"The federal government and the state are going to have to pay for the vast majority of this," he said.
Now that county officials have a specific plan, the time is right for the state Department of Ecology to ask the Legislature to approve money for the Swift Creek project, said Mary O'Herron, an environmental specialist for Ecology. The money could be available as early as July 2014.
A state grant has provided about two-thirds of the $1.26 million spent since October 2010 on planning, dredging and other aspects of the project, Middleton said.
The EPA also can contribute to the effort, Hale said, but the agency needs more information about what actions will be taken and their timing before it makes a decision.
When answering questions about the health risk posed by the landslide, Nooksack Mayor Jim Ackerman likes to say he's a healthy and hardy 68-year-old who was born and raised in the area. Nooksack is about five miles downstream of the landslide.
"I've worked around it, with it and in it all my life," Ackerman said. "I'm not extremely worried about it as a health hazard, to be honest with you, but there are a lot of people who are worried about it."
Ackerman doesn't know of any farm fields that have been knocked out of production by the "agricultural sterility" caused by the metals in the sediment - a possible outcome described in the staff report. The farmers just till the sediment into the soil after floods with no ill effects, he said.
Ackerman said he hopes county officials will decide it's OK again for locals to put the dredged sediment to what had been a popular use - construction fill.
"It packs better than gravel does," he said.
Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at email@example.com or call 715-2298.