What do you do when the polluter is a mountain?

Sumas Mountain has been losing weight.
For decades, a slow-moving landslide has been exposing the side of Sumas Mountain, in Whatcom County. The landslide material contains naturally-occurring asbestos and heavy metals — and it all ends up in Swift Creek.

Can we stop the mountain from sliding? No dice.

View of a pasture, house in foreground with Sumas Mountain in background, taking up backdrop, covered in trees

The Sumas Mountain landslide

Ecology originally considered engineering a “fix” to stop Sumas Mountain from sliding and depositing asbestos into Swift Creek. Further research and design revealed that Mother Nature would win that fight.
The slide can’t be stopped by a human-engineered approach, no matter how massive. Sumas mountain, or at least one side of it, is slowly coming down.
So Ecology and Whatcom County are left to manage the effects: chronic flooding and huge volumes of landslide debris and stream-born sediment damaging property and crops downstream.
Check out the Swift Creek Action Plan to learn about this flood control and sediment management plan.

A round peg in a square hole

Swift Creek to left, large pile of sediment entering from the right, taking up half the riverbed.

Sediment in Swift Creek from the Sumas Mountain landslide is contaminated with naturally-occurring asbestos and heavy metals.

Over the past 30 years since the Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA) became law, Ecology has become skilled at managing cleanups — and then comes along a unique project that’s NOT a cleanup. MTCA gives Ecology legal authority to clean up contaminated sites — and to make Potentially Liable Parties (PLPs) pay for it. At Swift Creek, the only PLP is Mother Nature, and as much as we all wish, money does not grow on her trees. We can’t get her to the table to sign a legal agreement, either.

Meanwhile, we’re left with the challenge of fitting a round peg into a square hole: a long-term project implemented with a MTCA-based legal agreement, but with no PLP and no rigid MTCA process to guide management.

Twists and turns

Given the unusual challenges and need for coordination among Whatcom County, EPA and Canadian agencies, Ecology’s project manager, Cris Matthews, relocated to the Bellingham Field Office years ago to better manage the project.
Group of people sit around tables in a room, watching a large projection screen.

Swift Creek public meeting Oct. 9, 2019. Public input was a big part of the process.

Since Mother Nature wasn’t ponying up and Whatcom County didn’t have the money to complete the project, outside funding was critical. Several trips to the state legislature over the years for budgetary help were eventually rewarded with appropriations to pay for the project. With funding available, Ecology and Whatcom County crafted a grant agreement that allows flexibility to provide for the complicated mix of property purchase, contracting, and long-term construction goals.
The twists and turns didn’t stop with the finances. The project requires the county to purchase approximately 200 acres of private timberland, and those negotiations are currently in progress.
Then there was keeping the community involved and informed — in two nations. Swift Creek flows into the Sumas River and, eventually, the Fraser River, northeast of Abbotsford, British Columbia.
Maintaining relationships with our Canadian agency counterparts and proactively engaging the community were key. The public meeting was well-attended and various outreach outlets helped spread the word. Our story even landed on the front page of the local newspaper.

Different flow, same goal

For all its differences, the end goal of the Swift Creek project is the same as Ecology’s goal for any project: protect human health and the environment. Since Ecology and Whatcom County can’t stop the asbestos problem or remove it from the environment, we work to control the effects to stream conditions, flooding, and manage the sediment in a way designed to reduce risk.
Group of people sitting around a table looking at papers.

The Swift Creek project Consent Decree signing Dec. 6, 2019, was an exciting milestone allowing us to move forward with solutions.

To be where we are today took a team effort, dedication, perseverance, more than a few cups of coffee, and a unanimous “yes” vote by the Whatcom County Council on Tuesday, November 19 to sign the Consent Decree that defines the relationship and responsibilities for Ecology and the county.
Friday, December 6, 2019 marked a huge milestone with the Consent Decree signing. Unfortunately, a photo couldn’t quite capture the satisfaction in the room, but you can see a few smiles accompanying the pens.
Well done team.
Sumas Mountain keeps sliding. Sediment keeps accumulating. Swift Creek keeps flowing.
Our team keeps innovating, managing and persevering.
When Mother Nature gives us a “square hole,” we make that “round peg” fit the best we can.