What Lies Beneath Whatcom County Attracts Attention of Federal Government

Since January 2014, Whatcom Watch has been reprinting articles from issues printed 20 years ago. The below article appeared in the March 2003 issue of Whatcom Watch.

by Alison Bickerstaff

On the sunny afternoon of Feb. 5, 2003, Environmental Protection Agency officials convened in Bellingham to discuss the dark, cavernous abandoned coal mines that wind under Bellingham and around Lake Whatcom.

The EPA hosted the meeting at the Community Food Cooperative’s Education Classroom/Center on the corner of North Forest and East Chestnut streets, just one block southeast of the nearest stretch of the old Sehome mine.

Coal mining, one of Bellingham’s founding industries, began here with the discovery of the Sehome coal vein in 1853 and ended with the closure of the Bellingham coal mine in 1954.

The Environmental Exposure Network and the Clean Water Alliance submitted a citizen petition to EPA Administrator Christie Whitman in Dec. 2002 over concerns that the abandoned mines may contain hazardous waste, pose subsidence or cave-in risks, or may lie dangerously close to gas lines or fault lines.

Preliminary Mines’ Assessment
In response to the citizen petition, EPA will conduct a preliminary assessment on 11 mines to determine if they warrant clean up under Superfund, EPA’s program that addresses hazardous waste sites throughout the country that pose health and environmental risks.

EPA Site Assessment Manager Joanne LaBaw will be the technical lead for the project.“When we look at potential Superfund sites, there are a number of steps that we go through,” LaBaw said. “The first step is the preliminary assessment.”

The 11 sites include the Sehome mine and Bellingham coal mine under the city of Bellingham and the Whatcom Creek mine, Prospect mine, Dellestra mine, Glen Echo mine, John Manning mine, Manley Work Camp mine, Rocky Ridge mine and Geneva mine located around Lake Whatcom. The site assessment contractor, whom EPA hired from a consultant firm called Ecology and Environment Inc., has pinpointed the location of nine of the 11 mines so far.

“What the contractor is going to be doing through the preliminary assessment is gather data and put the information into the scoring model,” LaBaw said.

EPA will collect existing files of those local, state and federal agencies that may have involvement with the sites. The contractor will visit each site, review relevant documents and use the hazard ranking system, a mathematical model, to determine if the sites warrant further investigation, such as sampling and testing, under the Superfund program.

The hazard ranking system can score up to four migration or exposure pathways — air, soil, surface water and groundwater — to determine if the mines pose environmental and public health hazards.

“The score EPA ends up with will work like an on/off switch for whether or not EPA will move forward to the next step,” LaBaw said. “That score is 28.5.”

EPA Community Involvement Coordinator Deborah Neal will create fact sheets on the progress of the preliminary assessment and will organize meetings. She will also maintain a mailing list for interested citizens to stay informed of the project.

EPA Site Assessment and Cleanup Unit Manager Sylvia Kawabata said that before the meeting that February afternoon, the EPA team met with local government officials to introduce them to the preliminary assessment process.

“We met with the city, county and Ecology this morning, and they indicated that they would be willing to share their documents with us and our contractor,” she said.

Yet, the petitioners and other concerned citizens who attended the meeting (who have also tried to research the mines) assert EPA will come up short in their search.

Pages of Documents Missing
The petitioners from the Environmental Exposure Network said that, for the last two years, they have searched for documentation and maps of the mines at local and state government offices. They said they found pages of documents missing, boxes of data disappeared and maps gone.

One local citizen researcher said, “There is a lot of circumstantial evidence that leads us to suspect that at least some of the mines were subject to dumping; and you just have to wonder how you’re going to do a document review and a scoring of these sites without any sampling and testing done.”

Will EPA find the documents they need to complete the preliminary assessment? What the officials will find, one citizen said, is a pattern of egregious pollution here and literally boxes of data missing. When environmental laws went into effect several decades ago and local industry could not dump waste as openly as it once had, the abandoned mines may have posed a quick and easy solution, the citizen said.

“What we do know is that one local company, Georgia-Pacific, has refused to account for the mercury they bought and used in their processes here for over 30 years. It’s a case of the missing mercury. The coal mines are the big holes in the ground right next-door to their plant.”

LaBaw said the EPA officials will be able to gain access to any property the mine entrances are located on, even if a warrant is necessary.

The petitioners said they became concerned about possible dangers the mines pose when they learned the city planned to construct a heavy, multistory building at the old Mason building site on the southwest corner of Railroad Avenue and Holly Street, which is located over the old Sehome Mine. The city refuses to address subsidence and cave-in concerns, the petitioners said.

LaBaw said that EPA was not the proper federal agency to deal with subsidence concerns.

“The Office of Surface Mining is who would address that,” she said.

Review of Abandoned Mines
Whatcom County Councilmember Dan McShane said that, in the early 1980s, the Office of Surface Mining did pay for some review of abandoned mines in Bellingham. A company called Tetra Tech compiled a review of the mines in 1984.

“The city didn’t have much interest in looking into it much then,” he said. “But I think the city should get the property owners and construction interests together and figure out a way to get a better idea of where those mines are, especially along Railroad Avenue.”

McShane said that, while working for Purnell & Associates several years ago, city officials hired his company to examine environmental issues at the Mason building site, as well as determine whether the old Sehome mine ran below it.

“We took a drill rig out at Railroad and Holly and we hit a coal mine at 80 feet,” he said.

McShane said it is unlikely the mine poses a major subsidence risk.

“It’s going to settle some time, though,” he said. “It will happen.”

He said it comes down to a matter of risk and what kind of risk is acceptable.

“The people that [sic] bought that property decided to build a foundation that would tolerate differential settlement,” he said. “That means if one corner settles, the rest of the foundation would support it.”

He said parts of the Sehome mines lie below the Morse Hardware site and maybe behind the Boundary Bay Brewery between Railroad and Cornwall avenues. The original records for the Sehome mine burned in the great San Francisco fire, McShane said.

Walter Johnson (see “A Former Coal Miner Looks Back” sidebar article), who worked in the Bellingham coal mine from 1941 to 1950, said the old Sehome mine ran under State Street below Western Washington University.

Swallowing Automobiles
“The Sehome mine entered near the foot of Cornwall Avenue below State Street. It went under downtown and under part of Sehome hill,” he said. “That coal vein ran under Railroad Avenue and Holly Street and it was mined out there. At the intersection of Railroad and Holly one time back in late 1940s, a cave-in occurred.”

He said a huge hole opened up big enough to swallow automobiles. “It was right by the Mason building site where they’re building a new building there now,” Johnson said. “The hole was filled right away and paved over.”

According to Bellingham history books and newspaper clips, it was not the first such cave-in at that intersection — though concerned citizens hope it was the last.

According to “The Fourth Corner; Highlights of the Early Northwest” by Lelah Jackson Edson (Cox Brothers, 1951 and Whatcom Museum, 1968), the miners sank a mine shaft between Laurel and Myrtle streets on Railroad Avenue. The company also sank shafts, according to testimony in the book, on the beach near Cornwall Avenue and into the bluff above the beach. The Sehome mine, plagued by explosive methane gas, fires and flooding, closed in 1878.

The tunnel under Railroad Avenue, however, was responsible for much trouble in later years through settling of streets and buildings, according to the book. In 1888, 20 men filled a cave-in at the corner of Holly Street and Railroad Avenue [future location of the Mason building] to “solve” the problem.

Former Bellingham Herald columnist and historian George Hunsby wrote on Jan. 11, 1994, that in the late 1890s, B.B. & B.C. Railroad got a contact to haul fill dirt and rubble at the corner of Railroad Avenue and Holly Street where a large sinkhole formed over the old mine.

“(Martin Olsen) and Jack Treutle would pull up 10 or 12 loaded gondola cars with fill dirt to the sinkhole day after day, expecting each day to fill the hole,” Hunsby wrote. “But mysteriously, each day all the dirt disappeared. Eventually, it was discovered that each day as the tide ebbed, a suction effect in the tunnel took much of the fill dirt out into the bay.”

Hunsby said problems in the north end of the block occurred in the mid-1990s because the mine tunnel wasn’t filled northward.

The “Pit” protestors who pushed for a new park at the former Mason building site [corner of Railroad Avenue and Holly Street] a few years ago likely had no idea just how appropriate a name the “Pit” really was.

McShane also mentioned that there might be some small areas of subsidence concern over the Bellingham coal mine along Northwest Avenue near Squalicum Creek. In addition, part of the old Silver Beach Mine at the north end of Lake Whatcom caved in once out of the blue.

“A portion of that mine collapsed in the 1970s right in the middle of a street,” he said. “They filled it with gravel. I think it was pretty small.”

Mines Around Lake Whatcom
According to “An Historical Geography of the Settlement Around Lake Whatcom Prior to 1920” by F. Stanley Moore (Western Washington State College, 1973), there were several other mines around Lake Whatcom. These include, according to the book, the Rocky Ridge mine, Geneva mine, Silver Beach mine, Manning’s Camp mine (may go by alternate name such as Manley’s), Blue Canyon mine and a mine at the present site of Wildwood Resort (directly across lake from the Blue Canyon mine). Prospecting also occurred along Smith Creek and Dellestra Point.

Blue Canyon, according to the book, was the most important mine on the lake. The Blue Canyon Mining Company formed in 1891. Coal was mined from two portals, carried by rail tramway to bunkers on the shore and either transported by railroad around the lake or by barges across the lake. The mine was closed in 1919.

Another mine that opened within the Lake Whatcom watershed was the Glen Echo Mine on the northeast side of the lake.

Galen Biery, a local historian, taped interviews with former coal miners in the 1970s.

In 1974, Biery interviewed Joe Jussel, owner of the Glen Echo mine. That taped interview is stored at the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies across the street from Western Washington University, along with many other interviews, photographs and boxes of Bellingham historical documents that Biery donated.

Jussel, a contractor and excavator who also demolished the Pacific American Fisheries cannery in Bellingham, bought the Glen Echo mine from Frederick and Nelson of Seattle in 1942.

“I was under the impression it started in 1896,” he said. “It’s five miles from (Bellingham) city limits to the property northeast. It’s on the Y Road. There are approximately five veins (of coal) on the property spaced 50 to 150 feet apart laying underneath each other.”

Jussel said he shut down the mining operation there in 1948 when the market fell through for coal. He said he sold the land surface to Scott Paper Company.

Glen Echo Mine and Y Road Landfill
The petitioners who requested the EPA preliminary assessment said they are concerned over the proximity of the Glen Echo mine to the Y Road landfill, a pair of dumps that sit next to a Lake Whatcom tributary. The county bought the dumps, once used by G-P, in 1996. Might the landfill overlay the mine, the petitioners wonder?

Environmental Health Scientist Karen Larson, who works for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s Seattle office, attended the EPA meeting in Bellingham.

She consulted both the Washington state Department of Health and the Whatcom County Department of Health and Human Services about health concerns the Y Road landfill may pose.

“We have a cooperative agreement with the state health department and they have been writing health consultations about concerns at the Y Road landfill,” Larson said. “We are required to do a public health assessment that looks at roots of exposure and all pathways.”

ATSDR, a nonregulatory public health agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will be available to answer health question during EPA’s preliminary assessment.

According to the local health department, the leachate from the landfill does exceed some standards for metals. Also, investigators found significant concentrations of landfill gas, which is mostly comprised of methane, in the landfill. Some citizens are also concerned that contaminants, perhaps mercury, may leak from the landfill.

Steve Lindberg, a mercury expert at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Environmental Science Division, said that environmental and health risks may arise when mercury and methane are in close proximity.

“If they’ve been putting mercury waste in mines, then there would be a problem,” he explained. “Mercury is methylated by bacteria during the process that decomposes waste. Methane, landfill gas, that comes out has quite high amounts of methyl mercury, which is the most toxic form of mercury.”

In 1982, Biery published a Bellingham history book with fellow historian Dorothy Koert called “Looking Back, Vol. 2.” In it, the authors quote a woman named Leslie Mason who asks, “What secrets are contained in the rubble-piled passageways of the Sehome coal mines?”

Concerned citizens said they wonder the same about Glen Echo and the other nine mines EPA will investigate during the preliminary assessment. They await EPA’s conclusions, which should be complete in six to nine months.  

Editor’s Note: the Seattle office of the EPA did not reply to an email inquiring about the results of the preliminary assessment.

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