Fort Bragg & The Mill Site
by Rex Gressett, December 6, 2017
On a brisk and wintery Fort Bragg morning November 27, walking down to city hall, for the Mayor’s open meeting I had the whimsical notion how odd it was that that the little town looked so quiet after the departure of the tourists and yet contained behind those closed doors such a vigorous hammering out of strategy and fearsome construction of plots.
To say that the mill site is in play is a wild understatement. When I got to City Hall a little glimpse into the furious top-secret negotiations taking place far from the prying eyes of the press and the people was by chance and by George leaked to the public. George Reinhardt, steadfast citizen activist, rocked the small informal group of Fort Braggians and the Mayor himself with an explosive letter from Georgia Pacific to Mayor Lindy Peters.
When George Reinhardt gave Peters a copy of his own letter there was mayoral eye-rolling, and apparent mild dissimilation, but overall Peters seemed reasonable and patient. The letter was a shocker but he was not disturbed. Later in the day just before the meeting I found out why.
Taylor Champion (his real name) is a GP pressure person. He managed to perfectly capture the inimitable spirit of the Koch Brothers by rebuking, insulting, and lying to our mayor in an excess of threatening diatribe that departed from the facts entirely in its enthusiasm for forceful ultimatum.
The GP spokesman “reminded” Mayor Peters that the city had agreed to share liability in the cleanup of Mill Pond 8. Shock, disbelief and incredulity went ricocheting through the room. If the council knew and the mayor knew that the city shared liability for the cleanup of Pond 8 it was certain that neither the mayor nor the council had ever mentioned it. As an omission, it was appallingly sinister.
After the meeting I did a fast public information request for the settlement agreement. It can legally take 10 days but I asked for a favor. Actually, the “settlement” was a stipulation between Plaintiff Georgia-Pacific LLC and the defendant, the city, to clean up Pond 8. It was never disclosed to the public.
The letter ranted on. The dioxins are Fort Bragg’s fault, not GP’s because there are more dioxins flowing down from the city stormwater than there are in the pond. This odd and macabre twist may be true. Apparently, it is an explicit reference to a mysterious study that came out of the OfficeMax lawsuit. Before the 2012 stipulation, it was not known that there even were dioxins in the mill ponds. Previous DTSC studies had somehow not disclosed their presence. The GP letter to the mayor specifically referenced a toxicity study that I have heard discussed before by members of the council but who do not seem to have access to it anymore. In the mystery study, dioxin contamination was found to be greater the further upstream toward the city you go from the mill pond. The tons of dioxin-laden fly ash (the gooey gunk left over at the bottom of the mill’s big burner which burned such things as industrial trash and used motor oil) that the mill dumped in the gardens and playing fields of the city seems to be an obvious explanation. GP feels it is clearly the fault of the people who have lived and died in the contamination.
Evidently, GP has the only copy of the study. DTSC says they don’t know to what I refer. Maybe the information is secreted in the sealed discovery files that have never been released to the public from the 2012 settlement.
By Monday evening, just in time for the meeting our superb city clerk June Lemos had pulled the settlement agreement/stipulation demonstrating once more an inspiring exemplary dispatch and her invariable courtesy. Not a word about any shared liability. The leaked GP letter was just a peek at the bullying tactics directed at the city council. The public generally does not know it, but the little Fort Bragg City Council takes big heat from one of the world’s largest holding companies, an outfit with $800 billion in assets. How much impact does it have? At the evening’s meeting, we were about to get a little taste. The Mayor's letter was an outrageous example of open arm-twisting on a comical scale, but it is not the first time that various members of the city council have indicated to me that they also have felt acute pressure from the corporate giant.
* * *
The Town Hall filled regular meeting of the city council moved into those pre-negotiated positions that elbows to the kidney and thumbs in the eye had suggested to them.
The last regular city council meeting at Town Hall was extremely well attended, it virtually had to be — they were addressing a whole flotilla of issues. The great hall was divided into cozy geometries of faction. GP was sitting in the back row meticulously disguised as civilians. Another serious little group represented the Skunk Train. Robert Pinoli, operating president of the Fort Bragg/Willits micro Railroad, was there in person. To the left was Reinhardt's group who were there to proudly put their ball through their hoop with a resolution, by the council, that the council take toxic cleanup seriously; and there were the winter shelter social services persons in ranks to support good will, provided by authorized, funded people at very great cost.
All in all, it was a diverse group mostly because there was so much on the agenda. This meeting carried a full load mostly but not entirely of interrelated mill site resolutions aimed at a single object. The meeting ran the legal maximum to 10pm. The superpacked agenda Monday night was elaborately designed to liberate the mill site from the danger of becoming a public space and letting the property be sold off in tiny pieces. This to take place ASAP. GP takes it for granted and is saying loudly that there is going to be no more cleanup. Pond 8 is just fine the way it is.
The city council and the planning commission under the direction of the city manager have worked tirelessly for half a year to duly articulate the Local Coastal Plan (LCP) policy (under the California Coastal Act) and had been successful in keeping the implications of their creeping plan just below a dangerous threshold of public perception. This was the final rush to the finish line.
Monday night’s marathon meeting was contrived to wear the council out physically until the rubberstamp came out in time to get them all home at a reasonable bedtime. It reminded one of a successfully planned and executed robbery. But this council are not fools and their minds were made up anyway. Taken as a whole what they were accomplishing was a total capitulation to GP. GP was in gloating attendance to see all this common ground open space clean up Pond 8 nonsense put permanently to bed. If you want a cleaned up mill site, this was not a good meeting. The council knew it.
GP loves the LCP. It is victory. They were on the hook for maybe $38 million, but now they are saying loudly and in fact belligerently that they have no further liability. They assure us that the dioxins in the ponds are not considerable and if they are present at all, which they insist they are not, it is someone else's fault. The LCP allows them to take that posture with impunity and still sell the mill site in bits for cash.
In her Coastal Commission-funded survey planner Marie Jones suggested three versions of the LCP proposal to massively subdivide the property. Respondents who came to the workshop got to color in their extremely limited options on maps for added emphasis. This preposterous exercise in public deception is being utilized to discount the need for further public comment and participation and to provide momentum to the progress of the LCP. It is not for the city council; it is for you. The council buys into the LCP (without enthusiasm, but defiantly). Their minds are long since made up.
When the City Council encountered their new responsibilities they were introduced to the development department’s 15-year rule. Everything takes 15 years. There were 15 years of public input. The almost completed but now discarded Specific Plan would for some reason have taken 15 more years (I think I have that right) or a new one would take 15 years. The daylighting of the creeks is estimated by the planning department to take 15 years. Everything is 15 years. What it actually means is that we can’t do anything, but maybe we will be able to do something in 15 years.
The formula encompasses an element of job security. Confronted early in their terms with the impasse of insurmountable development department ineptitude, the new city council found itself stymied in their innocent pledge to the voters to do something to end the perennial embarrassment of no action on the mill site. Confronted in practice with the impossibility of acting in public interest to create public space not only because of city financial surprises and newly discovered but robustly hemorrhaging red ink, but also because institutional inertia and apathy at town hall have killed all motivation.
Actually, it was pretty simple, public access and open space.
But practically speaking, the council could see no way to do it, and therefore no profit in talking about it. Former City Manager Linda Ruffing and the city administration were fine with giving GP the big green light — simply because they are congenitally hostile to the rabble on principle. Plus the hard-sell boys from GP were behind the scenes pushing the council and negotiating with the city administration. The council found itself just looking hard for a graceful way not to do what most people wanted.
Tricky stuff, but they pulled it off. GP’s predatory pre-maneuvering with the city manager and the development director kept the process in motion. Harsh and continuing pressure to influence the city council greased the tracks.
Monday night the agenda rolled over the vision and expressed wishes of the city in a series of three major victories for Georgia Pacific Inc. The dry shed was not protected; the property was cleared for subdivision and in the last most poignant and painful resolution George Reinhardt’s carefully and intelligently crafted resolution gave the opportunity for the City Council to shout into a arguably empty barrel that they demand the complete clean up of the mill site They could not do other than pass the resolution. The people of the city are won’t have it any other way. But it is only a gesture and in effect a backhanded victory for GP. The resolution underlines the fact that the City Council has no authority, just weight in the decision-making process conducted by the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control. The city could have negotiated directly with GP but unfortunately the LCP they approved takes away any incentive that GP might ever have had to give a damn.