Whatcom County to begin repairs to levee at asbestos-laden Swift Creek

Cris Matthews of the Washington Department of Ecology stands on sediment in Swift Creek, looking west from Goodwin Road bridge, on July 25, 2014. The St. Innocent Orthodox Church is in the background.
Cris Matthews of the Washington Department of Ecology stands on sediment in Swift Creek, looking west from Goodwin Road bridge, on July 25, 2014. The St. Innocent Orthodox Church is in the background. Washington Dept. of Ecology

More studies and some actual earth-moving will happen this fall as local, state and federal agencies try to stem the tide of silt, heavy metals and asbestos flowing down Swift Creek from a creeping landslide on Sumas Mountain.

High water this spring almost broke through a levee on the north bank of Swift Creek, between Goodwin and Oat Coles roads, east of Nooksack.

“We were about eight inches from losing Swift Creek to the north,” said Roland Middleton, the project manager who oversees the county’s efforts to contain the hazardous Swift Creek slide. The mucky water would have destroyed habitat in Breckenridge Creek to the north.

Swift Creek flood waters would be “very damaging to fish and plant life just because it is carrying so much (sediment),” Middleton said.

“It flows like a chocolate-mint milkshake,” Middleton said. “Fish die in it because their gills fill up with not just asbestos and heavy metals, but sediment.”

County employees fixed the levee enough to hold through the summer. One of three contracts for Swift Creek that the County Council approved on Oct. 14 was $443,901 for a more permanent fix.

Trimaxx Construction, Inc., of Sedro-Woolley should in the next few days begin to firm up the north bank of lower Swift Creek by removing sediment and piling large rocks along the bank.

This is a good time of year to do the work, Middleton said.

“You want to do that work in the wet season,” he said. “You want to keep the dust down. However, (you want to do it) before the creek fills up with milkshake, too.”

Council member Sam Crawford asked on Oct. 14 if levee-repair workers would be adequately protected from the asbestos.

Middleton told Crawford that government-approved safety practices largely amount to wiping down vehicles and boots.

“To wear the full Tyvek, completely enclosed suits has been determined by all the people in the know to be not necessary,” Middleton said.

Studies of the health risks from Sumas Mountain’s naturally occurring asbestos were 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 said people who live around 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 runs into the Sumas River.

The 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.

To make progress toward a long-term solution, the council also approved on Oct. 14 a $160,000 contract to hire Wheeler Consulting Group of Burlington to rank potential sites where 1 million cubic yards of sediment could be stored.

After the study is completed, council will hear a report on the priority list, and how much it will cost to establish the repository and move the sediment there.

Also with the council’s blessing on Oct. 14, contractor Watershed Science & Engineering of Seattle will study whether it would be feasible to reroute the north fork of Swift Creek so it no longer flows into the landslide area. That contract was for $180,000.

The cost of the reroute would be much higher. An early estimate puts it at $14 million to $17 million.

How much for the whole Swift Creek fix?

“Dozens of millions of dollars,” Middleton said.

Is it worth the price? More than $1 million has been spent so far, and officials still don’t know whether the Herculean effort to move rivers and tons of earth is even doable.

“Imagine Oso, and it’s not just mud but mud carrying asbestos and heavy metals,” Middleton said. A large landslide on March 22 crossed the Stillaguamish River into Oso and killed 43 people.

“This is not a good situation to throw your hands up and walk away,” Middleton said. “It’s complicated. It’s messy. It’s expensive. That’s why Whatcom County, the Department of Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency have joined together ... to address not just a regional issue but actually an international issue.”

The county’s staff so far has the council behind it.

“The Swift Creek issue is probably our single biggest problem area,” council member Rud Browne said on Oct. 14. “The downstream damage that could be caused if we don’t deal with this is really immense to the community.”