PAT NEAL: A poisonous past

What started as a simple quest to dig a bucket of clams was not as simple as it seemed. There were no clams.

Usually, when the tide is out in Discovery Bay, the clams are squirting like mini lawn sprinklers, but no, they were all dead. The oysters were dead. Their shells had mysterious holes in them. A carpet of dead oyster shells with a sickly rust-colored coating covered the beach.

It looked like ground zero the day after the end of the world.

How could Discovery Bay, which in 1900 the federal government declared a shellfish preserve for native oysters to be used to propagate other areas, be turned into a dead zone a little over century later? It was easy.

In 1914, a railroad connected Port Townsend to Port Crescent. The route, which cut across tidelands at the head of Discovery Bay, operated until 1980, carrying raw materials such as sulphur used in the production of pulp at the Rayonier mill in Port Angeles.

Notorious for accidents involving land-slides and derailments, the railroad had a switching yard at the head of the bay where it stored materials spilled from the box cars. Railroad beds are notorious toxic waste sites, even if you don’t dump sulphur on them.

But this was small potatoes compared to what happened to Discovery Bay after the end of WWII.

The United States had subjected Japan to a devastating fire-bombing campaign.

At the end of the war, the bombs had to be shipped home, but all of the West Coast ports were clogged with shipping.

As a result, the U.S. Navy anchored 16 Victory Ships, aka floating magazines with 3,500 tons of 500-pound incendiary bombs on board.

The crews were stuck on the ships for almost two years while they discharged oils, sewage, garbage and chemicals into the bay.

While it is not known for sure if any bombs were dumped in Discovery Bay, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the presence of benzyl alcohol, chromium, phenol, methylphenol, zinc, benzo anthracene, benzoic acid and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons along with aluminum, iron, magnesium and copper in sediments at the bottom of the bay is consistent with the chemical footprint of dumped munitions in other military sites.

In December 1945, the clams of Discovery Bay were temporarily condemned as unfit for human consumption.

The post-war boom provided other never-ending sources of pollution to Discovery Bay.

The log dump and booming ground at the head of the bay covered portions of the bottom with the bark, limbs and whole logs that smothered anything living underneath.

A saw mill and veneer plant were built in the 1950s that used the tidelands as a place to put an estimated 50,000 cubic feet of sawdust piled 50 feet tall, and it sank 6 or 8 feet below the surface of the estuary.

While the complex chemical reactions of wood waste in water are not fully appreciated, they go something like this: The rapid deterioration of sawdust leaches chemicals into the water, while the bacteria utilize all of the oxygen, creating anaerobic black muck. The process becomes more dangerous with the mixture of low-pH fresh water and high-pH salt water that occurs twice a day with the movement of the tides — causing metals to precipitate out of the water and settle into the septic layer of muck.

If this black muck is exposed to air, it dissolves the metals back into a solution where it can be readily absorbed by clams, oysters, fish and eventually all sea life.

Is this what happened to the shellfish in Discovery Bay?

Tune in next week …

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Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.

He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patnealwildlife@gmail.com.