Aberdeen: Sierra Pacific’s Polluted Prison

When Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) opened a new lumber mill across the road from Steve Wycoff’s metal shop in Aberdeen, Washington, Steve hoped the new jobs might help turn the local economy around.  But instead SPI turned Steve’s cozy metal shop, where he’d worked for 15 years, nestled under 100-foot tall fir trees, into a polluted prison.

Aberdeen, of course, is a small city (population 16,000) on the Washington Coast best known for producing the grunge band Nirvana and its leader, the late Kurt Cobain.

Steve got his first clue that SPI was going to be an unruly neighbor when the mill applied for its environmental permits. SPI was going to clear off precious shoreline on the local bay, and SPI wanted to dump its turbid waste water into the bay too.

Steve and some of the other locals objected, but the plant got its initial approvals and started to build.  And when the plant’s air permit came up for public review, Wycoff knew something was really wrong. He discovered that SPI was prohibited from even starting construction before the State approved a final air permit.

Even though the plant was already half-built, the air permit had just been released in draft form for public comment, and was months away from a final approval.  Steve hired an attorney and a researcher, and vigorously objected to SPI jumping the gun on its construction. The State agency belatedly levied a $30,000 fine against SPI.

SPI surely knew the air quality rules. The State of California had recently charged SPI for variations of the same offense of constructing an industrial facility without first obtaining an air permit, and tampering with pollution monitoring. SPI would ultimately pay $13 million in fines in that case.

After SPI formally opened, Wycoff’s trouble worsened. Every morning, his property was coated with sawdust that had blown over from the SPI operation. Practically every day he and his neighbors would phone in complaints to the Regional Clean Air Agency and follow it up with written objections.

The Agency did not want to hear the complaints. Initially they tried to force Steve and his neighbors to notarize every complaint.

Occasionally an Agency inspector would arrive, and their reports always read the same, “ …substantial sawdust … accumulation of sawdust … layer of sawdust.”

Steve was suffering, now only from trying to work, and struggling to breathe under the cloud of SPI’s sawdust, but now he was unable to rent an adjoining property because of the dust.

After a few months Steve and his neighbors had over 200 complaints pending against SPI. Eventually the Clean Air Agency proposed a $43,000 fine against SPI, but reduced it to $10,000.

Then SPI applied for an air permit to expand their operations. As Steve looked through SPI’s application materials, he felt the short hair rise on his neck.  Not only did sawdust spew from SPI’s operations, SPI also emitted thousands of pounds of cancer-causing air pollutants. The State environmental review that originally allowed siting of SPI, and the air permit had never discussed all of these toxic air pollutants.

It was bad enough that Steve and his neighbors had to make over 200 dust complaints against SPI to get the State air pollution agency to act.

But over the next two years, Steve would find that the federal Environmental Protection Agency itself would betray him and the other victims of SPI’s toxic air pollution.  Steve’s legal investigators sent the EPA a painfully detailed investigation of SPI’s air toxics violations, but the federal EPA would refuse to prosecute SPI, and instead would deliver a nod-and-wink offer to SPI to “voluntarily” report their hazardous air emissions, free of penalty.

Even though EPA had evidence in hand of SPI’s violations, EPA memorandums obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) showed EPA investigators plotting how to help SPI avoid punishment. SPI’s violations could have triggered fines of $75,000 a day. Instead, an EPA e-mail suggested how SPI could avoid any fine despite its years of violations:

“… point out (to SPI) what “appears” to be violations and “suggest” that they   verify it with an “audit” … that would be the only way they can quality for the 100% mitigation of the penalty. I never mentioned the “V” (violation) word,” advised one EPA staffer to another. (Parens added)

What the federal EPA staff did was twist the intent of its voluntary self-policing program that had been instituted with good intentions in 2000.

This program allowed a company to escape or reduce financial penalties for environmental violations, but a company had to fulfill a series of obligations first.

A company must conduct its own environmental “audit” of its operations, uncover violations independently, and report and correct the violations promptly to even be considered for the relief of the self-policing program. Furthermore, the company must not have repeatedly violated those regulations in the past. Under the self-policing program, SPI would have to discover the violation before EPA would have identified the problem itself through information from a 3rd party. If a company met all of these conditions, their fines would be vastly reduced or even eliminated.

For instance, the EPA suspended an $85,000 fine against Jabil Circuit in San Jose for self-reporting the same types of violations alleged against SPI.

But SPI’s violations at its Aberdeen facility would not qualify for any regulatory relief. Simply put, the minute the EPA tore open the envelope from Steve’s legal researchers and read the detailed complaint from SPI’s angry neighbors about SPI’s violations, SPI became ineligible for the self-policing program.

SPI did not ever conduct an audit, voluntary or otherwise. Instead, its angry neighbors had reviewed its paper trail and made their own complaints.

Even with the EPA’s nudging, nodding and winking, SPI never took the hint and ultimately conducted an audit and then pretended to independently discover and report the violations.   SPI never reported any of its own violations within the 21-day requirement after discovery. SPI did not promptly correct its violations within 60 days.

In fact, EPA on-line data bases show that SPI has apparently never fully reported its toxic air pollution as of December, 2010, fully 3 years after Steve’s legal researchers made the initial complaint.

SPI does now grudgingly admits to its toxic ammonia emissions from its Aberdeen plant, after years of non-compliance. But documents released under FOIA do not show that the EPA ever fined SPI at all, must less suspend a fine, even though EPA has recently fined other companies has high as $81,400 for failure to report ammonia emissions.

And SPI’s Aberdeen plant still does not report its emissions of highly hazardous acteldehyde.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Pacific lumber mill in Centralia, Washington does not appear to be currently complying with the toxic air pollution reporting requirements, either. It reported no toxic emissions to the EPA for 2009, although its State air permit shows the facility emits over 30,000 pounds annually of reportable air toxics including acteldehyde and ammonia.  Maybe someone should complain to the Federal EPA and instigate another 5 year litany of failure to prosecute SPI.

MORE ABOUT SPI

According to their website SPI is the largest private landowner in California, and owns and manages almost 1.9 million acres of forestland in California and Washington.  It is the 2nd largest timber producer in the United States. SPI operates 16mills and wood product plants in California and Washington, including eight with their own power plants.

SPI is not unadulterated evil.  It recently announced an agreement to conserve giant California Sequoias on 60,000 acres of their private timberlands. The High Sierra Rural Alliance, a non-profit group, also obtained a successful settlement of a court suit against SPI that protected lands within the Tahoe National Forest from premature development.

SPI also agreed to dedicating 4000 acres of lands north of Truckee, California as conservation easements to the Truckee Donner Land Trust.

PARTIAL SPI ENVIRONMENTAL VIOLATION HISTORY

  • 1998-2008 14 violations and $141,000 in fines for California water violations.
  • 2002 $10,000 fine for building a boiler without an air permit at its Aberdeen    facility.
  • 2003- $1.5 million settlement for pollution of the Humboldt Bay estuary.
  • 2007 – $13 million settlement for air pollution violations at 4 of SPI’s California mills.
  • 2008- Boiler violation at its Centralia facility
  • 2009 $3000 fine for diesel truck air pollution violations.
  • 2009-Acrolein emission limits exceeded.
  • 2010- Notice to sue filed against SPI alleging water quality violations at its Red Bluff, Ca. mill.

2 Comments on "Aberdeen: Sierra Pacific’s Polluted Prison"

  1. Heiidi Strand | August 13, 2013 at 11:14 am |

    Dear John Williams,

    Thank you for the well researched article.
    My grassroot friends and I just won a case against Sierra Pacific Industries with the U.S. EPA Environmental Appeals Board (EAB). We just had a hard hitting Speak your Piece published in the Record Searchlight too.

    If you FOIA SPI’s air permits, supporting documents and their violations for the last five years it would give you a wealth of new information.
    P.S. we wouldn’t mind copies.

    Thank you again,
    Your friends in Northern California

    If you would FOIA Sierra pacific’s

  2. Lloyd Vivola | March 3, 2011 at 7:34 am |

    Good article, linking the local to larger trends and issues. I visited Aberdeen and its environs briefly in the summer of 2009, months after two Weyerhaeuser mills closed there. I imagine the hard times continue. But I also know from reading that the town grapples with the always hopeful mantra of an economic future enhanced by tourism and alternative energy. And your article itself cites that Sierra Pacific, while guilty of many environmental violations, is not without an occasional gesture in the way of protecting forests. As a green progressive and not a Tea Party supporter, I am forced to ask why it is that our governments and corporations address current challenges by wasting so much time, energy, and money, not to mention human mind and muscle, on lawyers, lobbying, bureaucracy, and public relations. I am not naive about profit-motives and, dare I say, greed; nor can one ever count out the instinctive resistance to change. But it seems that we desperately need to find a new model for local communication and coordination to meet the challenge of shaping healthy communities in a sustainable world. You can argue in the name of ecology or economics, but as your article suggests, the current system is broken and leaves much to be desired.

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