Residents living near Swift Creek, an area in Whatcom County, Washington, continue to look for answers from local and federal governments about long-term containment and clean-up efforts of the Swift Creek asbestos site. Gov. Chris Gregoire wants to provide $1 million to help with the short-term goal of restructuring of levees, which still has to meet the approval of the state legislature, and help prevent further flooding, but tells residents the money for long-term efforts just isn’t there.
A massive landslide from the Sumas Mountain occurred decades ago near the headwaters of Swift Creek and has been releasing excess sediment into the creek each year. This slide material contains naturally occurring asbestos. In earlier years (after the first slide occurred) in efforts to prevent flooding, the county would dredge the creek and remove the asbestos-laden sediment. This sediment was used to shore up the creek banks and offered as fill to local residents. In 2005, it was determined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the levels of asbestos in the sediment made it a health risk. The dredging ceased, and the sediment was to no longer be used by the community.
This is a great first step in protecting the community, but not only is the old sediment still lining the shores of the creek, the new sediment from the landslide is no longer being dredged, causing flooding of nearby farmlands: floodwaters that contain and leave asbestos fibers in the fields. The Washington Department of Health issued an advisory in September 2008 stating, “asbestos is in the water and the riverbed sediment and may become airborne when people disturb the ground by walking, cycling, or riding horses on the creek banks or dredge piles.” What is not noted in the advisory is the potential danger farmers will face when they till or cultivate a field that was flooded with the asbestos-contaminated water.
Asbestos exposure occurs when asbestos fibers become airborne and are inhaled into the lungs. These fibers can do damage to the lungs and have been linked to many serious and terminal illnesses like asbestosis and mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a rare cancer caused by asbestos and asbestosis is the scarring of the lung tissue, which decreases lung capacity. Although cancer rates in the area of Swift Creek seem to be consistent with other parts of Washington, the long latency period of asbestos-related disease can cause this number to change at any time.
Although the EPA has determined that the levels of asbestos in this area are high and dangerous, they have not found affordable long-term solutions. Cost of full repair of the area could be as much as $100 million. Some efforts have been made, and some sediment piles have been capped to prevent further disturbance. If approved, the $1 million from the state will be used to try and prevent another year of flooding. County executives are hopeful that the US Army Corp of Engineers will get involved in the project, while the EPA continues to work with state and federal agencies to develop a safe long-term solution for both flood control and management of the dredged sediment.