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Timber Firm Ordered Cover-Up, Ex-Official Says

April 07, 2006|Tim Reiterman | Times Staff Writer

A former official of the North Coast timber giant Pacific Lumber Co. contends in a lawsuit that the company's president ordered him to conceal the presence of underground contaminants to avoid a costly cleanup and to expedite construction of sawmill facilities in Humboldt County.

A Pacific Lumber spokesman said the allegations were not true and added that the plaintiff's contention that he had been fired also was not true.

Humboldt County Dist. Atty. Paul Gallegos said Thursday that his office was examining the charges.

In a wrongful-termination suit filed last month, Jimmy Dan Cook said that, as the company's business and community development director, he was responsible for obtaining environmental permits for a new $30-million sawmill and a runoff-retention pond in Scotia.

Cook alleged that excavations for the pond in the spring of 2004 uncovered waste materials, including asbestos, oily shop residue, barrels with unknown contents, garbage and solid wood waste.

When he informed company President Robert Manne and recommended notifying state water quality officials, Cook's suit says he was told "to not report the contamination and to keep the information in-house."

Despite his objections, Cook said the unlined pond was constructed on the contaminated site. He said he believes that it has "resulted in dangerously polluted water leaching and/or overflowing into the Eel River," which supplies water to Scotia and is a fishery.

When contacted by the Los Angeles Times about the lawsuit Thursday, a state water quality official said her agency would look into the allegations to determine whether there was evidence of pollution. Gallegos declined to comment on his investigation.

"These allegations are not correct," said Pacific Lumber spokesman Chuck Center.

Citing company policy, Center would not discuss the litigation, but he denied that Cook had been fired and said he was on disability.

Since the early 1990s, Pacific Lumber has been fighting with state water quality regulators and environmentalists over timber-cutting practices that critics say threaten some of the last ancient redwood stands on Earth, as well as damaging streams and wildlife habitat.

Six years ago, the state and federal governments made a $480-million deal to protect 7,500 acres of the company's land in the new Headwaters Preserve.

But Pacific Lumber has contended that environmental restrictions elsewhere on its property have prevented it from cutting enough timber to make a profit, while critics have said the company created its own problems by liquidating assets and improperly structuring its debt.

Cook, 58, a lifetime Humboldt County resident, worked for the county public works department and another timber concern before joining Pacific Lumber in 1995, his attorney said.

The suit said Cook went on disability for stress and depression in August 2004 after "repeated verbal abuse and threats from Manne because of his resistance to follow orders he believed to be unlawful."

In a phone interview, Cook's attorney, Zachary Zwerdling, said there were witnesses at management meetings but declined to name them.

Zwerdling said the company removed some of the asbestos. But he said Cook estimated that a cleanup of all the contamination at the site would have cost $1 million to $4 million.

The attorney said Cook also proposed a less costly evaluation of the extent of contamination, but company officials turned down his request because they wanted construction to move ahead to meet a July 2004 deadline for opening the new sawmill.

The mill was designed to handle smaller logs as the company shifted from cutting increasingly scarce big trees on its property.

Cook "did everything he could within the parameters of his job to address the problem," Zwerdling said. "He could not physically or psychologically continue with his job and had to go on disability."

Although he has not received a termination notice, Cook maintains that he was, in effect, fired when his office was cleaned out in April 2005 and his computer was taken away. The suit seeks unspecified monetary damages.

Catherine Kuhlman, executive officer of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, said the agency, as the first steps in its investigation, would do some water monitoring in nearby communities and would require Pacific Lumber to provide detailed information on construction of the pond.

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