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Lawmakers: Let Businesses Profit Off Of Mt. St. Helens Eruption Mess

Staff Reporter

Thirty years after the volcanic eruption of Mt. St. Helens, communities in southwest Washington are still feeling its effects. Sediment continues to flow into the Cowlitz and Toutle Rivers and their tributaries. That's been causing floods and drinking water problems. Experts say the sediment won't go away for hundreds of years. Now, as Chantal Anderson reports lawmakers, hope they can get entrepreneurs to help clean up the sand.


A year ago the Coweeman River ran through Luis Guiterrez's living room in Kelso. He's one of many residents completely washed out of the Villa San Martin. It's a subsidized community of townhouses unprotected by a nearby levy. Guiterrez says after the flood he had to move out for two months.

Guiterrez: "I go to live with my brother."

Damages were upwards of $500,000 to repair the housing structure. The heavy rain Kelso experienced played a part in the flooding. But there's another factor average citizens may not be aware of. The river inundated partly because sand from the Mt. St. Helens eruption three decades ago is still making the river higher.

Stone: "Well because of the sand having the river raised up, perched up a little higher, it's into the softer riverbanks and so the riverbanks will erode away."

Ken Stone is Director of Asset Management for Cowlitz County. He walks along the Coweeman River, telling me about the flood at Villa San Martin last winter.

Stone: "The water filled up so high it crossed over the roadway into the apartments."

Stone has worked for Cowlitz County since before the mountain blew. Since then he's dedicated a large part of his career to repairing damage the eruption caused. Miles of sediment and mud have created a nightmare for operators at the regional water treatment plant in Longview.

More than 50,000 people in this area get drinking water from the river, after it's purified at the plant. Todd Douglas is an operator at the plant. He says the facility opened in 1946, and just isn't equipped to handle sand coming down the river.

Douglas: "Essentially to build a treatment plant to deal with the kind of sediment that comes off of Mt. St. Helens would be unrealistic."

Because of this, the city of Longview recently decided to stop purifying river water and switch to groundwater. The city is spending $40 million to replace the plant, and dig wells.

Douglas: "You can tell that the sand is becoming more and more of a problem over here."

In the back lot of the plant there sits a 10–foot pile of dirt. Douglas says during heavy rainy seasons filtered sediment gets taken out by the truckload.

We take a walk across the street to look over the Cowlitz River. Douglas points out changes in the land.

Douglas: "This beach right here will change constantly throughout the year with the sand being brought down. This is always changing, it is, and that's just what you can see right here in front of you."

It's a problem the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took on for eight months after 1980, when it dredged the Toutle, Columbia and Cowlitz rivers. Since 2007, the corps has dredged every year in lower Cowlitz County, pulling out around 3.5 million yards of sediment.

Another pickle for the city? Finding somewhere to put all that dirt. Making things even more challenging, Washington state tacks a royalty fee on for people who sell the sand. The state waived the fee, so the corps could find a place to put all of it.

This year, one Democratic Washington lawmaker wants to remove royalty fees on sand altogether. The goal of the bill is entice companies to take the sand and sell it.

Back at the Coweeman River, Stone leaves me with a scary picture: what could happen if sand piles up so high there's a flood bigger than the one last year?

Stone: "It'd be much smaller than New Orleans but it'd be the same kind of thing. All the houses all wet, all the businesses all wet, and there'd be hundred of millions of dollars in damage."

Stone hopes removing the sand fee will prompt the free market to help fix an environmental problem. I'm Chantal Anderson, in Kelso.

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