UPDATE – August 20, 2019
Since our last story in June our leaders at Permit Sonoma (was PRMD) and Syar Industries have been very busy working on solutions andrequired permitting to address the breach. Permit Sonoma pulled together an Interagency Task Force meeting to discuss possible solutions and constraints. They quickly concluded that a repair of the breach didn’t make sense as the same forces that eroded the un-mined strip of land between the river and the gravel pit would undo a repair. The local, state and federal resource agencies in the Task Force all
agreed that moving in the direction of the Hanson project to fill the deep pits, cap any waste at bottom and restore to low elevation floodplain made more environmental and financial sense. To have any hope of addressing the breach in the next year Permit Sonoma will be holding community meetings in the Healdsburg area soon.
Riverkeeper will make sure you are alerted to those meetings. No matter what is planned it will take at least ten months to go thru permitting, environmental review
and approvals – if everything goes smoothly so the breach will persist through this winter. Luckily we have yet to see any presence of toxic algae so far this summer. We were at the breach on August 14th for the SCCA paddle and the volume of flow out of the pit is about the same as what Healdsburg’s treatment plant is discharging into the pit. There was a marked increase in algae below the breach
and that continued for a ways downstream. The major issue from the Healdsburg discharges, which go through advanced treatment, is while it gets rid of all pathogens modern treatment plants just can’t reduce phosphorus below the level that causes algae blooms. While there are hundreds of native species of algae a few can release toxins when the cells burst. As the temperatures spiked above 100 last week we were very concerned but as of this writing have yet to detect any toxic species of algae in bloom. If there is a toxic outbreak, we have a wildcat solution ready that just requires a couple dozen very strong volunteers. Stay tuned and we’ll alert everyone when Permit Sonoma schedules the community meeting.
Polluted Gravel Pit Breached in Flood
Our worst fears were realized in the Feb 28th flood event, the largest gravel pit mine the Basalt Pit had a complete levee failure on a section that had failed in previous floods. The pit is just downstream of Dry Creek and is owned by Syar Industries. Over 30 years of process wash water with extremely high levels of toxic metals as well as Healdsburg’s treated wastewater discharges are now connected to our river that is our drinking water supply. Sediment testing of mining wash water in 2006 showed the mining waste contained Mercury, Iron and Aluminum at 200-800% of safe levels and Phosphorous at almost 500 times more than levels that can trigger toxic algae. Those pollutants are all conservative meaning they are still present and do not degrade over time and pose a threat to the river’s health and our health.
When we filed lawsuits against the County in the 80’s and 90’s to stop the pits one of our biggest reasons was the pits would be captured by the river in floods, sadly our predictions were correct, again. This occurred in the El Nino events in the late 90’s resulting in a Clean Water Act lawsuit by Friends of the Russian River, RRK’s predecessor.
The City of Healdsburg was issued a Cease and Desist Order over a decade ago to stop dumping their treated wastewater in the Basalt Pit and have not ceased this discharge.
As of this date, 3 months after the flood, we’re still waiting for action plans to protect the river this summer from Healdsburg’s wastewater that contains 1-3 mg/L of phosphorous, high enough to contribute to toxic algae blooms. We are concerned as well about the mining waste but that is less of a summer water quality threat since it is less mobile. We’re also very concerned that in six months it’ll be raining again and if we do not take action we will see major erosion of downstream properties.
At this time the County PRMD has convened two meetings with the resource protection agencies and are developing a tentative plan. Syar is standing by ready to take action once permits are issued. Once a tentative plan is developed, PRMD plans to hold a public meeting to collect public comments on their concerns regarding this issue and give you an opportunity to voice your opinion on how the County should respond to this major threat to the River’s health. We’ll keep you posted when the public meetings are scheduled so stay tuned!