The letters paint a dire picture, with talk of birth defects, heart attacks and premature death. They warn of an industrial operation that will spew mercury, hydrocarbons and other toxics into the air just a stone's throw from a local elementary school and a medical clinic, and just a couple hundred yards from the banks of the Trinity River, which multiple communities depend on for food, water and recreation. "Our community is appalled that a company would come to our area and knowingly pollute our air, ground and water," reads one letter signed by more than a dozen Willow Creek residents.
But the company is not some Johnny-come-lately, it's Eureka-based Mercer-Fraser, which has operated a gravel yard nestled in a curve of the Trinity River for five decades. Is this locally owned company really knowingly doing something that's going to belch pollution and toxics? The short answer is no.
A great deal of the animosity and fear surrounding Mercer-Fraser's proposal to construct a concrete batch plant on its existing industrial site off State Route 96 is the result of an error by the North Coast Unified Air Quality Management District, which is currently mulling the company's permit application. When the district noticed the application, Permit Engineer Winslow Condon described the project as a "Portland cement manufacturing plant," which understandably raised some hackles.
Portland cement manufacturing plants take crushed raw limestone mixed with some other ingredients and heat it in a rotating kiln to astronomical temperatures, usually using diesel burners. It's a nasty process, one that results in huge releases of caustic dust and dioxin, as well as CO2 and sulfur dioxide emissions. As a consequence, manufacturing facilities are intensely monitored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But this is not what Mercer-Fraser is looking to do in Willow Creek. Rather, the company is seeking permits to construct a concrete batch plant to operate alongside its asphalt batch and aggregate processing plants.
An operating concrete batch plant essentially does the same thing you would do when mixing concrete in a wheelbarrow, but on a much larger scale. Mercer-Fraser's plant would be used to fill cement trucks with concrete, using large electrically powered machinery to mix the cement with aggregate rock in an elevated tower, known as a "batcher," where it is weighed and dropped into a cement mixer truck waiting below and mixed with water to make concrete. Condon said the batcher will be equipped with a filter known as a "dust collector." Condon said these dust collectors, also known as "bag houses," are very efficient, and generally trap 99 percent of particulate matter up to 10 micrometers in size. "It's a highly efficient emissions control device," Condon said, adding that the accompanying cement storage silo and bin would also be outfitted with them.
Overall, Condon said, he expects emissions from the proposed batch plant will be very low. "The potential amount of pollution calculated to come from that concrete batch plant is so minimal that it came well below all of our thresholds to protect public health," he said. "On the scale of things, it's really quite small." Or, in the words of Mercer-Fraser owner Justin Zabel, "It's fairly low-key."
So, if that's true, why all the fuss? Was it simply over a noticing error? Humboldt County Planning Commissioner Steve Paine, who headed the Willow Creek Community Services District for 15 years before retiring in October and probably knows the community as well as anyone, said the issue is a bit more complicated than that. Making clear he's yet to make up his mind on Mercer-Fraser's proposal, Paine said he thinks there's already a "long-standing prejudice in this area that we have an asphalt batch plant across from the school." (Calls placed to Trinity Valley Elementary School seeking comment for this story were not returned). Some of that, Paine said, stems back a decade or two to when Mercer-Fraser, "seemingly overnight," expanded its property along the Trinity.
"There are people that feel like things are sometimes done behind people's backs and secretively," Paine said.
But even when things are done in open view, Paine said Willow Creekers can view the world through a skeptical lens, pointing to a fierce debate over fluoridating the town's water supply some years back that he says was dominated by misinformation and "really radical reports on all the potential damage."
For his part, Zabel said Mercer-Fraser is trying to be a good neighbor, like it always has. He pointed to the road down to Big Rock, one of the area's most popular swimming holes. The road runs through the company's property, Zabel said, and was made possible after Mercer-Fraser gave the county a right of way and then voluntarily paved the road. In this case, Zabel said Mercer-Fraser could have opted to locate the concrete batch plant further back on its sprawling property to sidestep public noticing requirements. But, he said the company didn't feel any need to hide what it's doing, and recognized that having all its operations close together would reduce its footprint and lessen dust, noise and other impacts.
Moving forward, Condon said the air quality management district has asked Mercer-Fraser to turn over some California Environmental Quality Act documents by Oct. 5 so it can make a determination on the company's application. However, Condon stressed that the sole criteria for the district's decision would be whether the project is compliant with air quality laws.
If approved, Zabel said the new concrete batcher will supply some private contractors out of the area, but mostly go to county and Caltrans road crews. Currently, Mercer-Fraser supplies such crews from its plant in Fortuna, leaving cement mixer trucks driving back and forth on State Route 299. "From an environmental standpoint, it's a lot easier to batch out of Willow Creek," Zabel said.