Debate over capping vs. dredging continues; port planning to fix cap when work begins on Whatcom Creek waterway and proposed marina
photo courtesy Port of Bellingham
|Strong wave action from Bellingham Bay has caused the sediment cap in the G-P log pond to erode slightly, mostly above the waterline; the cap keeps contaminated sediment from entering the waterway. Port officials say there is no danger, and the cap will be repaired when work on the waterway and marina begins in about 18 to 24 months.|
Amy Harder and Erica Ham
The cap on sediment in portions of the former Georgia-Pacific West Inc. site, which was capped in 2000 to contain high levels of mercury, has started to erode. The Port of Bellingham is planning to re-cap the site and is looking into ways to ensure the new caps don’t erode again, said Mike Hogan, community liaison specialist for the port.
The eroded cap is in the log pond, the former discharge site of the G-P pulp and paper mill, which currently contains some of the highest levels of mercury in Bellingham Bay. The pond’s cap is eroding due to strong wave action in the bay, Hogan said.
Mike Stoner, environmental director for the port, said the erosion to the cap is only occurring above the waterline where the cap is thinnest – it is still a robust six- to eight-feet thick over the bottom sediment — and poses no danger to the public.
“It’s sort of like you got a roof over your house, and have to repair the gutters. The roof isn’t failing,” he said. “But we’re going to take care of it when the first phase of work on the waterway and marina begins.” Stoner estimated that there were still 18 to 24 months of permitting to go before any work begins on the site.
Some local organizations, such as the Bellingham Bay Foundation and North Sound Baykeeper (a division of ReSources) have concerns about how the port plans to clean up the area to accommodate the new marina. The port’s cleanup strategy includes both removing contaminants in certain areas and capping them in others.
The log pond’s erosion could be a prediction of what might happen in the areas the port is planning on capping, said Anna Hall-Evans, executive director of the foundation.
“They’re using this cap as a prototype — an example of what they’d like to do for the rest of the inner portion of the waterway,” Hall-Evans said. “We’re saying there are some real serious questions that need to be answered before we determine if this is a successful approach for the rest of the waterway.”
Although some groups think the port should remove the contaminants from, or dredge, the entire area, Hogan said dredging disturbs the environment more since it can increase exposure risk to the surrounding area during the removal process.
“It’s real hard to remove contamination from the bottom of the ocean without stirring it up and getting it everywhere,” Hogan said.
The port is working with the Department of Ecology to cap approximately 70 to 85 percent of the inner portion of the waterway and dredge the outer waterway and lagoon, said Stoner. The cleanup of the contaminated area — including the log pond, lagoon and surrounding waterways — is estimated to cost $44 million, and the repair of the eroding log-pond cap is included in that cost.
The log pond’s cap is a temporary fix until the main cleanup of the surrounding waterways begins, Stoner said. Although the Department of Ecology said the eroding cap doesn’t require an immediate fix, the port is looking into ways to fix the current cap and prevent erosion in the new caps. Possible solutions are building thicker caps near the shoreline and installing rock-like structures in the waterways to create a barrier against storm waves.
The log pond serves as an example of how the port can improve future caps, by learning from what didn’t work, such as the current cap’s thin edge, Stoner said.
“The lesson that we learned here is that when we install these caps we need to keep them thick and robust, not only underwater, but all the way up to the top of the bank through the wave zone,” Stoner said.
Wayne Landis, director of the Institute of Environmental Toxicology at Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University, said both capping and dredging can be effective depending on the uses an area is being developed for. He has tested and monitored contaminated areas throughout North America for almost 30 years. Capping is commonly used to restore habitat because it’s less disturbing to the surrounding environment than capping.
“In both instances, if it’s properly done, you can minimize human exposure,” Landis said. I’ve seen both used successfully. The caps have to be monitored and maintained. What usually happens in dredging is finding (an appropriate) disposal site. So, both of them have caretaking obligations associated with them.”
Stakeholders debate capping controversy
Wendy Steffensen, a toxicologist with Baykeeper, said the port should see the log pond as a reason to hold off on either cleanup method until the port and Department of Ecology can understand the technologies better.
“There are a lot of unknowns about capping and dredging,” Steffensen said. “We can’t say with 100 percent accuracy that dredging is going to be a better solution in all places. What we are saying is that the port and Department of Ecology have not done an appropriate assessment of capping and dredging because their analysis has been driven by development interests.”
An agency must monitor a site that has been capped for at least 30 years into the future, Landis said. This is to ensure the cap is keeping the contaminants in place and that the surface of the cap is promoting a healthy environment for the organisms living above. Mercury, however, never completely goes away, so monitoring for that should be indefinite, Landis said.
The foundation and Baykeeper say the port has not factored in long-term planning, such as the costs of indefinitely monitoring capped mercury and weather incidents.
“We’re gambling on the long-term perspective,” Steffensen said. “We don’t know whether [the capped areas] are going to be disturbed by storm surges, earthquakes or big boats.”
The initial cost can run quite high with dredging because once the material is dredged it needs to be disposed of, Landis said, but the long-term costs of capping can also add up when the monitoring costs are factored in.
“So what I don’t usually see is the total cost figured in,” Landis said. “Usually it’s just the cost of that initial activity, not monitoring a cap site for 100 years.”
Although Stoner said the port will continue to monitor the caps in the area, including the log pond’s cap, for at least 20 to 30 years, the port’s current cleanup cost has only estimated monitoring costs based upon previous cleanup sites; the detailed monitoring costs will be factored in later. The log pond’s erosion was discovered in 2005 at the five-year mark of monitoring, Hogan said.
Stoner said because many of the areas are connected to the main waterway and bay, capping would ensure that the contaminants wouldn’t seep into nearby areas.
“Dredging is not the panacea that some people think it is,” Stoner said. “It’s a messy operation that really has to be done carefully, and so in the marine environment, when you have really low levels of contamination that barely exceed your health-based standards, a lot of times, it’s best just to leave it in place and cap it where it is.”
Mercury risk changes with exposure, levels
Mercury is the biggest environmental and health risk for Bellingham Bay, but it all depends on the amount and where it’s contained, Stoner said.
“Mercury, cadmium and arsenic exist naturally at low levels,” Stoner said. “It’s when the concentration is high that it becomes a problem. Most people hear the words and want it all out of the water.”
Landis said the likelihood of mercury exposure is an important factor to consider when determining the exposure risk to marine wildlife and humans.
“If the mercury’s all the way out in Bellingham Bay, and if you never go there, you’re not going to get exposed,” Landis said. “So the risk to you is actually pretty low. If the mercury is here in this room, you’re going to have a pretty major concern about it even if the concentration is fairly low, because your chance of exposure is very high.”
The dangers of mercury typically occur at high levels, and include damage to the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and immune system, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Web site. Although fish consumption often doesn’t result in harm, pregnant women can transfer high levels of mercury to unborn babies, which can lead to birth defects.
High levels of mercury in the water can affect humans who eat fish from the contaminated areas, Steffensen said. Organisms at the top of the food chain, such as tuna, seals, orcas and humans (especially subsistence fishers) in Bellingham Bay, will have the greatest “mercury loads,” she said. Larger organisms intensify the mercury and gather it from smaller organisms. Thus, their “load” is the greatest.
Considering the slow rate that mercury is emitted from those larger organisms, capping the inner waterway creates an unnecessary exposure risk for them over time because the cap could erode, Steffensen said.
Stoner said the log pond’s cap, despite the recent erosion above the waterline, has worked to contain the mercury and restore wildlife there.
“We have eel grass that’s taking hold,” Stoner said. “We have forage fish that are using the area. So, in a large part, (the log pond’s cap) is a hugely successful project. The place where it needs some work is right around the edges.”
Landis said that just because fish, for example, migrate to the area doesn’t mean the area is risk-free. Organisms, such as seals, oysters and shellfish often move to contaminated sites because no other organisms are there and they don’t have to compete for space. He said there is no way of knowing an area is risk-free unless a scientist tests the contamination’s effect on organisms living in the affected area.
Landis said however the port decides to clean up and develop the bay, it needs to address the needs of citizens in the future as well as the present stakeholders, he said.
“The biology and the chemistry have to link to the social aspect,” Landis said. “Then the decision makers have to make a decision that can be maintained for the next 100 years.”
Erica Ham and Amy Harder are journalism students at Western Washington University, and Harder is a former BBJ intern. The BBJ supports student journalists, and seeks to assist them in getting their projects to print.