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almost paradise

Before Valerie and Dwight Stapleton moved from Reno to Crescent City in 2002, Dwight was told he had six months to live. He was fighting chronic lung cancer — believed by the family to have originated during his military tour in Vietnam spent spraying Agent Orange along the Mekong River.

Dwight lived nine more years, embracing an active outdoors lifestyle by fishing and exploring Del Norte, which he first encountered as a boy when his father traveled here to log the land.

“I think just being here in the cleaner air, he lived longer than we expected,” said Valerie Stapleton, who continued to live in Del Norte after her husband died in July 2011. “They said he had maybe six months to live and he beat that by a long shot.”

Although there is no way of confirming Stapleton’s assumption that clean Crescent City air  prolonged her husband’s life, the air quality on the North Coast, and especially in Del Norte, is among the best a pair of lungs could hope for. And the water isn’t bad either.



Due to the lack of industry, favorable ocean air streams and the rural nature of the region, air quality in Del Norte is superior to many places in the country, according to officials from the North Coast Unified Air Quality Management District.

“In general we are one of the better off districts and that is a good thing,” said Brian Wilson, deputy air pollution control officer for Del Norte’s district. Ground-level ozone, one of the main ingredients of urban smog, is especially low on the North Coast.  “The EPA has a monitor for ozone at Trinidad and it’s one of the lowest they have relatively nationwide.”

The only Del Norte operation with a Title V permit, a designation issued to major pollution sources, has been Hambro Group’s particle board plant, which recently closed its doors for good.

The only other Title V operations in the North Coast Unified district (Del Norte, Humboldt and Trinity counties) are three biomass plants in Humboldt and PG&E’s Humboldt Bay Power Plant, Wilson said. The three biomass plants are DG Fairhaven Power in Samoa, Blue Lake Power, and Eel River Biomass Plant in Scotia, which went idle Nov. 1.

Without major industry, “there’s not a whole lot going on for us up in Del Norte,” Wilson said.

Vehicle emissions, illegal burning and even wood stoves can pose man-made air quality issues, but ocean air streams and the lack of industry and heavy traffic keeps the North Coast fairly fresh, Wilson said.

Natural sources such as windblown dust, sea salts and wildfires can be significant contributors for PM-10 or particulate matter of 10 micrometers or less (one-seventh the width of a human hair). The North Coast district is currently designated as “nonattainment” for PM-10, but the district has not exceeded the federal standard for particulate matter in the last five years.

Wilson said the district is working to regain attainment through programs like the Lower Emission School Bus Program, which recently funded the purchase of eight new school buses for Del Norte Unified School District at $120,000 a piece. Due to Del Norte’s supply of 20- to 30-year-old buses, the school district received more buses than the rest of the North Coast district combined. Seven additional Del Norte school district buses were retrofitted with a diesel particulate filter that made their emissions cleaner at a cost of $15,000 per bus for labor and parts.

The air quality agency also gives grants to homeowners who want to replace non-certified wood stoves with cleaner, more fuel efficient wood stoves or propane, natural gas or electric heating appliances.

What’s in the water

Like air quality, Del Norte’s tap water benefits from the fact there is hardly any industry or agriculture in the entire Smith River watershed, where most of the county draws its drinking water.

Crescent City’s water supply is drawn from the Ranney Collector on Smith River’s main stem two miles upstream from the Dr. Fine Bridge crossing Highway 101.  In 2010, the city used more than 719 million gallons for an average use of 1.97 million gallons per day.

The city’s water is naturally filtered through sand and gravel by being drawn from intake lines driven into the gravel bed 30 feet below the river.  The water is then pumped to a treatment facility on Kings Valley Road, where chlorine is added. Fluoride is no longer added since city voters approved a measure Nov. 6 to put a moratorium on adding the chemical.

Copper and lead levels detected in city water are below the Action Level, the amount that would trigger treatment or other requirement.  But copper and lead levels are above the Public Health Goal set  by the California Environmental Protection Agency.

The cause of the lead and copper is typically from the internal corrosion of old plumbing systems in households and service lines, according to Crescent City’s annual water quality report.  If your water has been sitting for several hours, you can minimize the potential for lead exposure by flushing your tap for 30 seconds to two minutes before using water for drinking or cooking, the city report states.  Lead and copper can also come the erosion of natural deposits.

Many county residents receive their water from a community service district or C.S.D., which is regulated by the California Department of Public Health’s Division of Drinking Water.

In 2011, results for all of the chemicals tested for came up negative, according to CDPH officials.

Using the Smith River as a drinking water source for Crescent City and many of the C.S.D.s does pose a risk since the source is adjacent to windy Highway 199, which carries semi-trucks loaded with toxic materials.  A paint spill in 1994 and a diesel spill in 2008 highlighted that risk.  Renner Petroleum was able to keep the diesel spill from entering the waterway thanks to fast action and diesel’s buoyancy.

But the 1,500-gallon latex paint spill was much harder to clean up, and samples showed 75 percent losses in insect life for 10 miles downstream, according to an article from The Record in Stockton. Department of Fish and Game officials allowed mother nature to clean up that spill, the article states.  

Since there is not any industry or agriculture on the Smith River above where the city or other service districts draw their water, there is no reason to believe that the source should be contaminated save for truck spills or if a massive landslide occurred, CDPH officials said. 

Nitrates and pesticides have showed up in the past in residential wells in and around the community of Smith River, presumably from agriculture, but CDPH officials do not have jurisdiction over wells that have less than 15 service connections, and the county has not routinely monitored these wells.

The lack of industry in Del Norte has made it difficult for the county to find its economic footing past the prime of logging and fishing. But the sights, sounds and smells of Del Norte’s natural beauty, accompanied by top-notch air quality and drinking water, grant Del Norters the ability to call our corner of California an environmental paradise.

Reach Adam Spencer at 
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Del Norte Triplicate:

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