Walker residents battle silt, bureaucracy
Walker residents are losing their patience with efforts – or lack thereof – by Mono County officials to help them deal with the silt left behind by the New Year’s flood.
“It’s been nine months since the flood and there is still one to five feet of silt on either side of the river,” said Walker resident Michele Hinds.
She said the silt has caused an increase in illnesses for river residents, citing eye infections and respiratory complaints as examples.
“This silt is the finest dust you’ll ever see in your life,” she said. “I can dust my house twice a day. I swear it’s coming in through the double-paned windows.”
Hinds said that when she and other family members go out in their yard and walk on the silt, it gets through their shoes and socks almost by magic.
“When you take your shoes and socks off, they are full of silt. It’s the weirdest stuff,” she said.
Hinds biggest concern is for the long-range health effects of residents exposed to the fine dust on a daily basis. After repeatedly frustrating efforts to get county officials to help alleviate the silt problem, she contacted the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District to see if experts there could determine whether there was any potential health hazard caused by these silt deposits.
This agency has jurisdiction for protecting air quality in Walker and all other areas within Mono, Inyo and Alpine counties. Ellen Hardebeck, Ph.D., air pollution control officer with the Great Basin District, said her office placed a PM-10 monitor in the vicinity of the Hinds property last spring to measure the quantity of dust particles in the air over a period of one month.
Based on that study, Hardebeck determined that there were violations of the State of California Health and Safety Code.
“The state of California sets the levels (of unacceptable airborne dust) and we found that the levels violated the state health-based standards for dust,” she said.
“These are PM-10 (micron) particles, they are fine like face powder, and they can get into your lungs and cause problems,” Hardebeck said.
A report of the results of that study was sent to Dr. Jack Bertman, the director of the Mono County Health Services, stating the violations. A recommendation was made in that document for Bertman to contact the Federal Emergency Management Administration since the Hinds, as property owners, may want assistance in the cleanup effort.
Dennis Lampson, director of environmental health for the Mono County Health Services, confirmed receiving the letter notifying Health Services officials of the health standard violations.
“We recently got a letter from the Great Basin Air Pollution Control District regarding some failed tests in that area, but we don’t believe they’ve issued any kind of warning,” he said. Lampson added that the Mono County public works director, Rich Boardman, is involved in trying to determine how to remediate the silty situation.
Boardman said his office is concerned with two post-flood tasks – debris removal in the Walker River channels and dealing with the sandy soil and silt.
“We’ve tried to find funding sources to help with the debris removal, but private property is difficult – it’s kind of up to the property owner,” Boardman said. He did mention that if the silt was found to be a health hazard, other authorities would likely step in.
Hinds said she and her husband Jeffrey planted grass on top of their silt, but that only helps with their two acres.
“The problem is, there are seven acres on one side of us that are full of the silt and two acres on the other side,” she said. “We all need to get rid of it to clear the air.” Hinds said she wonders if the increase in eye infections that residents experienced this year could have been caused by materials from septic systems that were flooded as the waters raged last January.
“None of us ever had these problems before,” she said. “This silt could be contaminated.”
Walker resident Dori Padilla, who also lives with silt on one side of her property, said when the wind blows, the fine silt gets into the lungs.
“My house is covered in dust, it’s so thick it gets into the dogs’ fur,” she said. “The problem is, some people are refusing to let the agencies go on their property to gain access to other residents who need the help.”
According to Hinds, when she contacted FEMA regarding the removal of the silt, officials told her that unless it was a proven health hazard, they would not have the jurisdiction to removed it.
“You know, we live on a river and we expect to deal with river problems,” she said. “But now that it has been proven a health hazard by the air pollution tests, what is holding up the county from helping us fix this?”
Monthly meetings between residents, county officials and federal representatives have been occurring ever since the flood, when Walker was isolated due to the destruction of Highway 395, the main road into the town from the south.
At last month’s meeting, residents were asked what their top priorities would be for FEMA to attend to. The first thing mentioned was protection from future flooding, and the silt concern was not far behind, Hinds said, adding that the silt was to be addressed at the next meeting, which was last Wednesday.
After attending that meeting, Hinds said she came away only mildly impressed with the promise of action.
“I feel like they tossed us a bone,” she said, explaining that Mono County Supervisor Ed Inwood, who represents northern Mono County, asked for a copy of the letter from Hardebeck be faxed to his office.
“They keep telling us ‘It’s not my area,’ but we’re not giving up,” Hinds said. “I will keep contacting them. Maybe I’ll call FEMA myself.”
Inwood said late Friday, that since being sworn in as one of five supervisors on January 7, the bulk of his duties have revolved almost exclusively around flood matters.
He said he’d love to resolve these issues and see bulldozers come in the end of fire season to move unwanted silt and dirt to areas where fill is needed, such as into the Walker River channels that were re-shaped by the flood, but making it happen is not all that simple.
“I am moving forward with a lot of caution,” he said. “We don’t want to incur additional liabilities for the county until our health doctor (Bertman) says there is definitely a health hazard associated with the silt.” Bertman, he said, has the letter from Hardebeck regarding the state violations and will be making his recommendations, but Inwood said he will not be making any effort to influence or rush Bertman in his decision.
The next meeting scheduled between residents, county officials and federal representatives will be Oct. 29 in the Walker Community Center at 7 p.m.