Whatcom County asks state for millions to contain Swift Creek asbestos

Steve Weaver and Roland Middleton, of Whatcom County Public Works, at the bridge over Swift Creek on Oat Coles Road on Nov. 30, 2016.
Steve Weaver and Roland Middleton, of Whatcom County Public Works, at the bridge over Swift Creek on Oat Coles Road on Nov. 30, 2016. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

A long-term fix for containing the naturally occurring asbestos and metals that flow into Swift Creek depends on $5.8 million that Whatcom County has asked the Legislature to set aside in the 2017-19 state budget.

It marks the third time the money has been requested from the state. If funding doesn’t come through this time, it could be a case of three strikes and you’re out.

“We are at a critical juncture,” said Roland Middleton, special programs manager for Whatcom County Public Works.

Last time around, the Senate pulled the funding request in the closing days of the legislative session.

“Here we are two years down the road with even more problems,” Middleton said.

Silt, trace metals and naturally occurring asbestos flow into the creek from a slow-moving landslide on the south fork of the creek, which begins on Sumas Mountain in north Whatcom County. People live and farm downstream. The material also isn’t good for agriculture, wildlife or fish.

The slide clogs Swift Creek with 60,000 to 130,000 cubic yards of sediment annually.

On the low end, Middleton likened the load to 6,000 dump trucks each carrying 10 yards – “to give you an idea of the problem we’re dealing with here,” he said.

While they wait to hear whether the money will come through, county officials have closed Oat Coles Road at the bridge over Swift Creek because they must pull the bridge.

Recent heavy rainfall has caused water to pond on the road and sediment in the lower reaches of the creek to rise until it reached the bottom of the bridge. As a result, the next significant rainfall could cause Swift Creek to leave its channel, according to Whatcom County Public Works.

That would leave deposits in ditches along the side of the road and inundate adjacent properties.

“It flows like a milkshake,” Middleton said, adding that the milky water was creamy-green in color.

That part of Oat Coles Road, which is east of Nooksack and Everson, was closed Wednesday.

What is now an indefinite closure affects about 220 vehicles – buses from Nooksack Valley School District, motorists and people moving farm equipment – that use that road each day.

Detours signs were posted.

“Getting Oat Coles open up again is a high priority for Whatcom County,” Middleton said.

“Intractable” problem

Studies of the health risks from the naturally occurring asbestos have been inconclusive. The microscopic asbestos fibers, also found in some construction materials and insulation, can cause lung cancer if inhaled.

A February 2008 report by the state Department of Health indicated that people who live near the creek have the same rates of cancer and other health problems as the rest of Washington. But asbestos levels in the air were above what the state and federal governments considered safe, the report said.

After a flood in January 2009, high levels of asbestos were found in soil deposited along the Sumas River as far north as the Canadian border. Excessive sediment from the slide worsens flooding on Swift Creek, which flows into the Sumas River.

Whatcom County has been dealing with Swift Creek for so long that county Public Works Director Jon Hutchings, in a Dec. 6 briefing to the County Council, called it an “intractable” problem – one that has cost $3.5 million in the past 10 years.

To prevent flooding, the county has, for decades, been dredging the landslide material out of Swift Creek. It has been piled along the creek’s banks between Goodwin and Oat Coles roads.

Still, space is running out for the piles, and the material erodes back into the stream when it rains.

That is why the county is working with the state Department of Ecology and the federal Environmental Protection Agency on a long-term solution. That includes the $5.8 million request in state funding for the first phase, which would pay for the design and construction of traps to capture the sediment as well as for a setback levee, design of a sediment basin, and the purchase of property and easements to make room for those projects.

And if the county can’t get the money to start the long-term plan to manage Swift Creek?

“If not, then Oat Coles Road probably stays closed,” Middleton said, “and we’ll have to look at how long we will keep Goodwin Road open.”

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea