By Mike A'Dair
Willits News
November 12, 1999

With the heavy rains that hit Willits Wednesday morning, a brew of foul looking leachate escaped from the grounds of the Willits plant of the Mendocino Forest Products Company.

The company is a sister company of the Mendocino Redwood Company and occupies the former site of a Louisiana-Pacific mill, about three miles north of Willits on Highway 101.

Site investigations revealed that the source of the pollution was water flowing from the ground that had been used as a landing for storing quantities of tan oak. Visiting the site Wednesday were Roxanne Barry, environmental adviser for Mendocino Redwood Company, and by Gary Van Patten, site supervisor for Mendocino Forest Products Company Willits Division.

Tan oak is a source of tannin, or tannic acid, a substance formerly used in the tanning process.

According to Barry, water from rains Monday pooled on the ground, which was covered with tan oak sawdust and chips. Tannin from the tan oak chips leached into the water. Additional rain that fell Wednesday morning moved the standing water into ditches, and the tannin frothed up and became noticeable to motorists driving on Highway 101.

Barry said that samples of the water had been taken to a local laboratory for testing. She said that she believed that the tannic acid in the water posed no danger to aquatic life, but added that she was not sure.

David Drell of the Willits Environmental Center was made aware of the discharge, and told The Willits News that he had been out to the site and had taken samples of the water. Drell said that Jim Harrison of the county's Department of Environmental Health had also visited the site, and had also taken samples. Drell said that he thought that the discharge of tannic acid into Outlet Creek did pose a danger.

"I don't know what it is," Drell said, "It might be tannic acid it might be something else. But I do know that there is too much of it to be dumping into the creek, undiluted like that. All I know is that it is a discharge into a state waterway that is home to two species of federally listed, endangered and protected fish and one candidate species for federal listing."

The protected species are coho and chinook salmon; the candidate species is steelhead trout.

"Mendocino Redwood Company has no permit to make a discharge like this," Drell said. "They have no permit. That's how our stupid regulations go; you can pollute but you need a permit to do so. There could be more than just tannin. L-P could have left a legacy that we don't know about. There has been a lot of work in that ditch (out in front of the mill, along the highway) and they may have turned up something that L-P had buried there. I think that the situation needs to be looked into."

Drell added that the spill could pose a danger to salmon even if it is not at lethal levels.

"Those fish can sense through their olfactory organs at least one part per billion, and maybe as much as one part per trillion. That's how they smell their way back to the stream of their birth. But a spill like this could confuse them, it could mask those few molecules of the home stream so they would not be able to detect the indicating molecules. That means that, in this case, salmon now migrating upstream might not be able to find their way to Outlet Creek," Drell said.

Sandy Dean, president of both Mendocino Redwood Company and Mendocino Forest Products Company, advised that Mendocino Forest Products is taking steps to remedy the situation both short and long term. For the short term, Dean said that his crews were working Thursday to berm the earth surrounding the area where the tannin-polluted water is coming from. Dean said that he has directed that the water should be pumped into trucks and moved off site.

Addressing a long-term solution, Dean said that his crews have been directed to make sure that wood waste from firewood processing operations is cleaned up so that the leaching problem does not occur again.

Dean downplayed the severity of the spill but said that he would make sure it didn't happen again.

"We believe that anything that is going into the water is organic," Dean said. "It's wood material, basically." "We would have preferred that it would not have happened. But it did happen. We want to do everything we can to address the issue," Dean said.

Dean said that his company did not have a permit to release pollutants into Outlet Creek. "The reason we're addressing this is not because of a permit. It's because it's the right thing to do."

Because of the Veteran's Day holiday, officials at Water Quality and the county Department of Environmental Health were not available for comment. TWN