When the Glenbrook Nickel Company plant shut down in 1998 many in the working-class neighborhoods of Bunker Hill and Eastside dreamt of a future when they could breathe a sigh of relief.
While the plant was in operation throughout the 1990s breathing clean air was problematic.
Ever since it opened in 1992, the nickel plant produced jobs for the area and contributed to the nickel ore industry. But neighbors contend the company's profits came at a price - their health.
After the plant opened, a fine haze of red dust hung in the air. The dust seeped into nooks and crannies of people's homes and cars. It blanketed plants, yards and rooftops. Some wiped the oily red dust off their car windows each morning just to back out of their driveways.
They complained of sinus problems, nose bleeds and ongoing respiratory issues. Some believe that cases of cancer are due to the dust from the former nickel plant.
Ultimately, the red irritant spawned a class action lawsuit in 1998 - a lawsuit that was eventually won by neighbors.
The Glenbrook plant has been gone for eight years. Some residents say they're just now recovering from the nickel dust.
So, when they learned another mining company, Portland-based Oregon Resources Corp, was buying the former Glenbrook Nickel Co. site - and turning it into a chromite ore processing plant - they figured their nightmare was about to start all over again.
An unwelcome guest
Janet Honer, who lives on Mullen Street, about 100 yards from the front gates of the former plant, and who spearheaded the lawsuit, couldn't be any plainer about what she thinks of the proposed chromite plant.
“I don't want them to be here,” she said.
Her biggest concern is how the chromite plant will affect the neighborhood and waters of Coos Bay.
Honer bought her home on Mullen Street in 1990. Two years later, Glenbrook Nickel went into operation and almost immediately, neighbors began to eye their neighborhood through a faint red haze. It wasn't until the late 1990s that neighbors banded together, and realized many were suffering from similar symptoms.
When Glenbrook Nickel proposed the plant, she said, company officials assured neighbors they would be friends to the environment. But, Honer contends, they never were, and her experience with Glenbrook is clouding her perception of Oregon Resources - a company whose officials she's never met.
“I'm not trusting these people now because of (Glenbrook),” she said. “It's going to be dust back in my lungs again. My lungs are still not good from all the nickel.”
She has already contacted the same lawyer, N. Robert Stoll, of Portland, to look into the health effects of chromite. If there are negative effects, she said, she plans to retain Stoll, and would likely put her property up for sale.
She said she knows she can't stop another mining outfit from locating just down the road, but she can be a watchdog, she said.
Dust to dust
A few houses away on Howard Avenue in Bunker Hill, Lynda Delore, 57, who also was party to the lawsuit, expressed dread about the potential of another mining outfit.
“My heart sank to the pit of my stomach,” Delore said, recollecting how she felt when she first heard Oregon Resources might be coming to town. “I thought, ‘Here we go again.' My only hope is that maybe they will come and buy us out.”
Delore's husband, Ed, died from renal cancer a few years back. While she has no proof, she has her suspicions the nickel plant may have contributed to his death. She wants more transparency from corporate businesses. She wants more thorough regulation from public agencies.
“Let's get our cards out on the table. I don't want any pollution. I don't want it in the air, or in the bay,” Delore said.
She said it's possible the neighborhood is heading for debilitating health problems once again.
“I think we are trading red dust, for black dust. I'm not thrilled about it,” Delore said, noting she suffered from frequent headaches when Glenbrook was located nearby.
Despite her reservations (her preference is for the company to locate elsewhere), she said she's willing to give Oregon Resources an opportunity to prove it's cut from a different corporate cloth.
She wants the company to be “accessible, accountable and responsible.”
“I don't want them to be untouchable, unreachable,” Delore said.
The company need look no further than the nearby Georgia-Pacific mill's public relations handbook, she said. Delore is on a first-name basis with officials there whom she calls whenever there's excessive noise or a smattering of sawdust raining down on her home.
“They're awesome,” Delore said. “You call them and they're on it.”
She said she hopes Oregon Resources, not only is upfront about its operations, but will adhere to ethical business practices.
Her preference is that Oregon Resources find someplace else to set up shop.
“I would like them to be knowledgeable and aware of the people who've lived here forever,” she said.
Like Honer, Delore doesn't think Oregon Resources can be stopped.
“All I can hope for is cooperation this time,” she said. “And, maybe, actually getting together with the people who are going to run it.”
Delore's sister-in-law, Donna Miller, who also lives on Howard Avenue, hopes Oregon Resources will meet with the neighbors to discuss the impact the mill might have on the community.
“It would be polite for them to get together with us,” Miller said. “That's only being a good neighbor.”
Give us a chance
Oregon Resources President Cheryl Wilson said while Oregon Resources and Glenbrook Nickel are, or were, both mining companies - the similarities stop there.
“That was a totally different operation,” Wilson said speaking of Glenbrook Nickel.
During an interview Friday, Wilson said she was familiar with the class action lawsuit. She said Oregon Resources plans to take precautions at the site including using covered trucks and sprinkling water to control dust in the yard - measures she contends Glenbrook did not take until too late.
Furthermore, she said, chromite, a heavy mineral, is inert, while nickel is not, she said. Chromite is not carcinogenic, she said, and plant workers would not be required to wear any special breathing devices - only hard-hats, steel-toed boots and safety goggles.
“It's hard to even think of us as the same type of operation,” she said. “From what I read, everything that happened, could have been prevented.”
Wilson said residents need not fear clouds of black dust, noting the operation at the plant will not involve crushing or pulverizing chromite.
“(Chromite) doesn't have to be extracted from its host rock,” Wilson said. “It's not a rock. This is a black sand.
“It doesn't blow in the wind like you might expect. It's called a heavy mineral sand. It's a bit different than dust. It's not like a field dust.”
The chromite operation, which will include a mining operation on lands north of Bandon, would be tightly monitored by officials from the Oregon Departments of Environmental Quality and Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, Wilson said.
“We have to meet all the requirements for dust and noise,” she said, to retain the state permit they have yet to apply for.
The company also plans to participate in a series of public meetings with Coos County.
Neighbors can expect Oregon Resource officials to respond to complaints, should they crop up, she said.
“We would certainly address it immediately,” Wilson said. “We plan to be very good community citizens - to educate the community on our processes,” she said. “What brings about fear, is the unknown.”
She said community members can comment on the operation during public hearings at the county level, or at other forums.
“If someone wants to request a meeting, we would certainly - by all means - want to hold meetings,” she said.
Wilson said she can empathize with the neighbors concerns.
“They are kind of saying, ‘I hope this doesn't happen again.' We can certainly reassure them. Anything they want us to address, we will address. Everything can be addressed.”
At the same time, she doesn't want to sugarcoat the operation too much. After all, the site is zoned for industrial use.
“It's not a pristine area,” she said.
Delore and others seemed interested in attending a meeting between the neighbors and the company.
“We have to let our feelings be known. The people who didn't like Glenbrook are still here. We are watching,” she said.