Asbestos-Contaminated Creek Headache for Washington County

A creek in Whatcom County, Washington, is scheduled for some limited cleanup work this fall after state and county officials agreed to spend almost $400,000 toward removing asbestos contamination from the area but that work will not be enough to restore the creek to a safe level.

Swift Creek is contaminated with asbestos fibers from the nearby Sumas Mountain. Landslides from Sumas Mountain have released large amounts of naturally-occurring asbestos. In years past, the county has periodically dredged Swift Creek as part of flood-prevention work. Unfortunately, the material removed from the creek bottom was stockpiled along the sides of the creek, where locals unaware of the asbestos contamination or not caring about the risks would haul it away for use as fill.

The hauling of fill material stopped in 2008 after the Washington Department of Ecology said it was unsafe to disturb the material. The Department of Ecology has cleared the cleanup effort, saying that limited work is acceptable under health standards.

The county requested that the US Congress authorize $400,000 to have the US Army Corps of Engineers investigate Swift Creek and see what could be done, but Congress declined to fund the request. The state has been asked to contribute $190,000 while Whatcom County contributes $200,000. That funding will be used for limited channel cleanup and armoring of the banks of the creek against further erosion. The County is hoping that President Bush will include the $400,000 for the Corps of Engineers work in his budget, but the odds of that are very poor.

Although the county and the state will do what they can for Swift Creek, local environmental experts say that there is simply no way the county can handle the full scope of the work on its own. A long-term solution to the problem of naturally-occurring asbestos in Swift Creek could cost more than $100 million to implement. Whatcom County’s annual budget expenditures are around $120 million for all county services combined.