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What Lies Beneath Bellingham Attracts Attention of Federal Government

March 2003

Cover Story

What Lies Beneath Bellingham Attracts Attention of Federal Government

by Alison Bickerstaff

Alison Bickerstaff, who worked last summer as an unpaid intern for the Environmental Exposure Network, has been published in the Every Other Weekly, in Northwest Ecosystem Alliance’s quarterly newsletter, in Huxley College’s Planet Magazine, and on—News for the Rain Forest Coast. She will graduate from Western Washington University this spring.

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 Assessment on Eleven Mines

In response to the citizen petition, EPA will conduct a preliminary assessment on eleven 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 eleven 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 (see map on facing page). The site assessment contractor, who EPA hired from a consultant firm called Ecology and Environment Inc., has pinpointed the location of nine of the eleven 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 factsheets 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 thirty 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, multi-story 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 in Bellingham

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 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 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, who worked in the Bellingham coal mine from 1941 to 1950, said the old Sehome mine ran under State Street below Western Washington University (see facing page article).

Cave In Big Enough to Swallow 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, twenty men filled a cave in at the corner of Holly Street and Railroad Avenue 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 southeast 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 old Mason building site 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 non-regulatory 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.

For further information, please visit Click on “Indez A-Z.” Then click on “Bellingham Coal Mines.” §

Former Bellingham Coal Miner Takes a Look Back

by Alison Bickerstaff
Not many people can say they live this close to work.

“One of the maps I’ve seen I found that where I live on the 2500 block of Victor Street. I’m right above some of the places my dad and I worked,” former Bellingham coal miner Walter Johnson said. “It’s right straight under my house.”

He said he began working in the Bellingham coal mine with his father in 1941 when he was eighteen. They worked hundreds of feet below ground on the 7 north level of the mine.

“I was a contract miner paid $1.43 a ton,” he said. “We didn’t need a boss to tell us to get to work. We did our own drilling and blasting and I timbered up the rooms and laid track for my coal cars.”

He said a room, also known as a tunnel, was roughly 20 feet wide by about seven feet high. Rooms had two sets of track, and two men would work in each room at a time.

“When we dropped down a loaded car on a pulley wheel, it would put an empty car up,” he said. “Cars would hold about two-and-a-half tons of coal. When we dropped a coal car down, there would be horse and mule drivers there that would hook the cars up and go to the main slope. The entry was approximately one mile long. The depth of the mine was about 1,270 feet.”

He said the entrance to the mine’s main slope (one of two) was located near where the Albertson’s store is located on Northwest Avenue and Birchwood Avenue. The slope, over 6,000 feet long, ran toward the Cement plant by Oeser Cedar pole yard. The horses and mules lived in a barn on one of the upper levels, he said.

Ten Levels in Bellingham Coal Mine

“There were 10 levels,” he explained. “Each level was about 300 to 400 hundred feet apart. The first one started down about 300 feet.”

Later he worked on the 9 north level out under Alderwood Avenue. It angled toward the Bellingham airport. When he worked there he had to hike in about a mile carrying all his blasting powder, caps and tools.

“When I quit working in the coal mine in 1950 I was working 1, 200 feet below Roeder Avenue where Mt. Baker plywood is, right where Squalicum Parkway intersects there,” he said.

Johnson said the coal vein started near Cornwall Park and ran east to west, extending all the way to Lummi Island. He said no coal was mined out under Bellingham Bay, though.

“The coal was produced mainly for the Cement plant in Bellingham and the Cement plant in Concrete,” said Johnson. “It was shipped by railroad. It was sold for home use too. At one time, G-P, which used to be called the Puget Sound Pulp and Timber Company, burned our coal until they turned over to other fuels.”

The mined out area was bound by Meridian Street, McLeod Road, Bellingham Bay and Bennett Avenue. “There was an awful lot taken out,” he said. “The mine ran from 1917 to 1954. It was estimated that the coal vein was 6,000 years old. We used to find imprints of leaves and knots of trees in the coal.”

The Bellingham coal mine was the largest coal mine in Whatcom County and, at one time, documented as the deepest coal mine in the United States with respect to sea level. The workers had to follow strict safety standards. The fire boss had to check the mine for methane gas every day because of the explosion danger it posed.

“There was an explosion in the Bellingham coal mine in the mid-1930s,” he said. “One man was killed, and that explosion traveled and created damage for about 1,000 feet.” There were some rooms that caved in while he worked there, and there were rock falls once in a while, too.

Mine Flooded With Saltwater

The mine flooded with saltwater from Bellingham Bay and a pump ran 24 hours a day to get the water out. “That mine is full of water now,” he said. “We put up posts every 4 or 5 feet and put up cross timbers to hold the rooms up. We didn’t take them out, but they are all rotten out and it’s all caved in now.”

The entrances to the two main slopes were sealed in with concrete a hundred feet or so after other fuels dominated the market and the mine closed.

A third entrance by Squalicum Creek was used to circulate air into the mine. He said he hoped that one was filled in well.

“That was between Birchwood and Squalicum Parkway,” he added. “There were many miles of tunnel, you see. There was too much to fill in.”

He stopped working in the mine in 1950 when his father advised him that the market was beginning to sink for coal. “I always joke that I worked in the coal mine to keep fires burning,” Johnson said. “Then I joined the Bellingham Fire Department to put fires out until I retired in 1974.”

The horses and mules that survived life and work in the mine retired to a nice farm where they could run free.

Johnson, who still lives on Victor Street, enjoys his retirement by traveling, fishing and spending time with his wife Vera of 62 years.

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