The air quality in Bellingham was temporarily compromised with the startup of the extra diesel generators at Georgia Pacific West Inc. The Department of Ecology, along with the City of Bellingham, has taken appropriate steps to stop the generators.
The environmental community was opposed to the decision by Ecology to issue the permit that allowed the original 16 generators and the startup of the extra generators. Calling the generators dangerous to health, they demanded that the mayor and city council deny the permit. However, the city has no jurisdiction over Ecology's issuing the permit.
Because Georgia Pacific is a pulp and paper mill they fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Ecology, not the City of Bellingham or the Northwest Air Pollution Authority
By law Ecology must allow citizen input but cannot base its decision on that input. If Georgia Pacific can demonstrate that it can operate the increased number of generators without violating the air standards then the department must issue the permit.
Georgia Pacific operated the original 16 generators in compliance with the air quality standards before it applied to Ecology for a permit to increase its generators to 40. This, along with other evidence, demonstrated to Ecology's satisfaction that Georgia Pacific could operate the extra generators without violating the air quality standards.
There are three consitutionally protected rights at issue. The right of the citizens of Bellingham to enjoy a healthy environment, the right of Georgia Pacific to operate its plant and the property (employment) rights of the workers at the facility.
The right to life takes precendent over Georgia Pacific's right to operate its facility and the employee rights. The law sets the air quality standards at a level at which there is not a significant risk of material harm.
In this case, the generators were not only noisy but also spewed black smoke into the air, so the legal situation changed. Because this was considered a public nuisance the City now had the right to file legal action.
Mayor Mark Asmundson conducted a personal investigation before requesting an injunction from the Whatcom County Superior Court. The request for the injunction was based on a state law that prohibits the operation of a public nuisance.
Nicole Oliver, city council clerk, said that city residents filed more than 360 declarations stating that their health had been adversely affected by the diesel exhaust and noise. These declarations will be used as evidence to help the court determine if it will issue the injunction.
Oliver said Ecology has informed Georgia Pacific that it intends to issue a cease and desist order and that the facility will be cited for violating the air quality standards. In short, the Department of Ecology did not err by issuing the permit to operate the extra generators. Georgia Pacific was able to demonstrate that it could operate the generators in compliance with the standards. The department had no choice except to issue the permit.
When Georgia Pacific violated the terms of the permit, the City of Bellingham and the Department of Ecology took legal action to shut down the generators to protect the health of the community.
Mark Cockrell, Manager of Georgia Pacific's Environmental Affairs said shutting down the mill will result in 200 people being laid off from work. Yet the courts have consistently placed the right to life above all other considerations, including employment.
Ecology respected the rights of everyone concerned. Georgia Pacific was shut down after it failed to comply with the standards. In this instance, the law worked.
Sheila Richardson retired from Georgia Pacific in 1999 after 31 years of service.