When Diesel Spills: What Happens to a Place, a People, and a Property Owner

28 Jul 2010, written by Kym 1 Comments
Buyers of the herb from dispensaries or dealers usually don’t realize the impact of their purchases.  However, pot grown illegally in rural hills is often grown off the electric grid with huge diesel generators.  If the operators of these grow rooms become careless or are unlucky, then environmental disaster happens.In the case of the May 2008 spill, the fuel used to operate the generator spread so far down the rugged streambed that when a neighbor smelled the pungent odor and investigated; he found “20 to 30 pools of red diesel” far below the spill.The scent became so overwhelming that the man was “unable to go in further due to possible respiratory problems.” In spite of a culture of privacy that covers the North Coast hills, the neighbor called authorities.Rapidly, a contractor, Northcoast Environmental Construction, began deploying absorbent pads, pillows and booms from what eventually became three semi trucks packed tightly with the material. Within days, the crew began removing the saturated soil with heavy equipment.The hole eventually reached around 15 feet deep.  The huge amounts of contaminated soil couldn’t be dealt with on site and soon large trucks muscled their way up curvy dirt roads to carry it several hundred miles to Redding to  The work was hard, hot, and expensive.  Almost a year later, the results of the spill ooze throughout the close-knit communities of Southern Humboldt County. The spill changed the creek, the community, and the owner of the property where the fuel spilled. be remediatedThe CreekBefore the spill, Hacker Creek splashed cleanly over boulders and between narrow fern filled banks on its way to the Eel River and the Pacific Ocean. Wild strawberries, wildflowers and wildlife were fed by its waters. Endangered California Bunch Grass waved long stems on the hillsides nearby and the newts of Giant Pacific Salamanders grew to adulthood in its waters. Kyle Keegan, a nearby resident, who worked on fish and wildlife surveys, said the lower waters were “probably nesting grounds” for steelhead and provided the cool summer rearing grounds so important for their survival. Through the critical summer months following the spill, the smell of diesel pervaded the creek bottom so strongly that it caused headaches.  The Giant Pacific Salamanders and Yellow-legged frogs that once populated the area surrounding the creek disappeared.  Above the spill, bees still hummed and butterflies floated from flower to flower but insects unlucky enough to try and drink below the spill often died.  While no amphibians were found dead, the bodies of invertebrates (insects) seasoned the scummy soup that remained of the once fresh water. The Hazmat inspector for Humboldt County, Larry Lancaster noted at the time that these deaths meant “the food supply [for amphibians, etc.] is being diminished.”

Now, almost a year later, winter rains poured thousands of gallons of water over the oil slick rocks.  Mosses have reappeared and the water to the naked eye sparkles cleanly.  Yet, close to the spill the smell of diesel wafts faintly like that of a corpse buried in a shallow grave.  Bundles of absorbent pads squat on banks awaiting possible further flushes of diesel.

The diesel, according to Melissa Martel, interim Director of the Division of Environmental Health, Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services, is “going to take years to degrade.  It’s impossible to remove it all.”  Bonnie Rolandelli, Engineering Geologist with the State agrees, “I hate that aspect of this job.  There is not enough money in the world to do that.”

The Community

Before the spill, community activists were already expressing dismay about diesel use and other practices associated with cannabis gardens—especially indoor grows.

In the Seventies, many people moved to Humboldt County, California with the goal of living off the land and escaping commercial society. They began planting marijuana first for themselves and then as a step towards a sustainable agricultural product they could sell in the city for enough money to support themselves. As marijuana eradication efforts grew more intense, pot growers began to move indoors. There, the farmers hoped to hide their illegal activities from being seen in flyovers by law enforcement helicopters and spotter planes.

The first operations rarely made much money as buyers were reluctant to purchase the new product. Indoor pot went for much less when it finally sold. Eventually, though, the uniformity of indoor pot began changing the minds of big buyers. Today, the ability of the indoor grower to control the plant’s environment allows for greater and quicker adaptability to the buyer’s desires. Want purple pot? The three month turnaround and climate control offered by indoor growers allows them to quickly provide what their consumer desires.

Experimentation at producing a more intense quick high was also facilitated by the 3 to 4 month indoor cycle. Prices for the new kind of pot skyrocketed. Today, a typical outdoor pound goes for $1500 to $2000 less than an indoor pound. As a result, many outdoor growers in the rural areas of Humboldt County began purchasing diesel generators and growing indoors.Ironically, many indoor growers actually cultivate a few outdoor plants for their own smoke or purchase open air “herb” from their neighbors. Citing flavor, a gentler high, and a belief plants grown outside are more medicinal than ones grown under lights, they express dismay that their buyers aren’t better informed. (see Healthy Marijuana in this issue for a description of Oakland’s Harborside dispensary’s failed efforts to raise awareness of the environmental pluses of smoking outdoor pot).

The practice of growing indoors not only generates a high environmental footprint by consuming large amounts of fuel (it differs per generator size, light type, etc. but calculations range from 75 to 120 gallons per pound–that’s between 4 ½ and 7 ½ gallons per ounce) but diesel spills, motor oil dumping, fires associated with bad wiring, and other concerns worry community activists.

The Hacker Creek spill brought attention to those concerns. Radio shows, newspaper articles and passionate neighborhood meetings have begun to lead to some small changes.  All the local diesel delivery companies now prominently offer and push containment for diesel fuel tanks.  Spill kits, too, are flying off the shelves.  Change is slow but the hope is that continued attention will result in fewer spills and more growers moving back from indoor production to outdoor gardens.

The Owner Before the spill, Albert Tordjman owned a remote beautiful 40 acre piece worth well over $500,000 and was able to afford long vacations out of the country in Thailand. The spill changed his life. The stress of possible legal ramifications drove him into the hospital. Costs of the cleanup reached $5000 per day for over a month and those costs piled on his shoulders. According to various sources, he had rented his Red Gypsy Ranch to other people and left for Thailand to spend time in his wife’s home country in 2007.  He arrived back in this country on or around the time the spill occurred. His renters melted into the hillside and he was left facing crippling fines.

Tordjman was caught between two hard facts.  He had to pay the over $200,000 in fines and the cleanup costs. If he did not, the fines increased to over $500,000 but, he could not afford to pay until he sold the land.  And still he can’t sell the land.

The diesel damage and the resulting publicity frightened buyers.  In order to facilitate the sale and the payoff, according to Melissa Martel, the county has “partially signed off on the cleanup and abatement order based on the results of three separate water tests at three locations during three different storm events.” But a new owner is “not completely free of liability,” Martel explains. If any diesel remains undiscovered until after the sale, the new owner is responsible for cleanup.

Although there have been several prospective buyers, in today’s economic squeeze, banks are reluctant to lend money to purchase land with that kind of liability. George Rolff, the property’s Real Estate agent, hopes for a different kind of purchaser, “If somebody out there wants a real deal and has cash, they should step up.” So far, no one has. According to an earlier statement by Eric Kirk, former attorney for Tordjman, his former client will probably have to file for bankruptcy and face “the rest of his life in poverty.”

Today, walking the stream, ferns brush clear water…and absorbent pillows. Hacker Creek, its community, and the owner of the indoor marijuana grow where the spill happened will never be the same. Although she was speaking about the producers of indoor marijuana, Bonnie Rolandelli could be speaking to those who chose to purchase indoor pot over outdoor, too. “The land is forever and we are so fleeting…Think about what you’re doing….for your children, and their children.”

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Robert Hempaz, Phd. Trichometry

September 30, 2010 12:38 am

For every ‘legal’ indoor grow operation high in the mountains, there are many more less adaptive outdoor grow-ops. Still, generating electricity from coal or diesel is dirty, toxic and environmentally unfriendly. We need to start labeling ALL buds as either indoor driven, or outdoor driven, as sustainably sparked, or as ‘dirty’ sparked. No different than driving a new ‘Leaf’. What matter to the global carbon footprint, if the electricity to run your ‘Leaf’ was produced by coal-fired steam? My condolences to the owner of the underlying property, but the old maxims ‘Know Thy Tenant’ and ‘Buyer Beware’ are inexplicably present in this modern American tragedy.

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