Unearthing the myths of Bellingham’s waterfront
If Geiger counters measured rumors, myths and misconceptions rather than radioactivity, Bellingham’s waterfront would be declared a nuclear disaster area.
In an attempt to clear the air, The Bellingham Business Journal decided to look into the facts and the fictions surrounding the plans to redevelop the Georgia-Pacific pulp and tissue mill site.
Not surprisingly, it’s not all that easy. In talking with those who know best — Bellingham Mayor Tim Douglas, Port Director Jim Darling, Department of Ecology Spokeswoman Shannon Sullivan and RE Sources Director Robyn du Pre — a few disagreements still arose.
But disagreements are not necessarily a bad thing, especially with a project of this scope. The basic facts are that there’s a general sentiment to redevelop the G-P site, the site contains contaminants that are harmful to both humans and the environment, and a robust public debate is ongoing about how best to approach both redevelopment and cleanup.
So get out your Geiger counter and see if the needle drops after reading their responses to these rumors — and see if you can separate fact from fiction.
Rumor: The Port of Bellingham acquired the 137-acre G-P site for $1 with no other financial responsibilities.
Fact or Fiction?: The port did not buy the property for $1. It bought the 137-acres for $10.
“The port got a sweet deal,” du Pre said.
While the deal may be sweet, the transaction is more complicated than a ten spot. The small amount is tied to 30 pages of other considerations, including an $84 million cleanup. In essence, Darling said the port is taking on the cost of doing the cleanup in exchange for the title for the property.
G-P paid a $5 million premium for an environmental insurance policy for the costs of the cleanup and agreed to $6 million for demolition work. To date, the port has already paid $22 million of its anticipated cleanup costs.
Rumor: The port assumed all of G-P’s environmental liability.
Fact or fiction?: Darling said the port assumed none of G-P’s liability.
“They wanted us to, but we wouldn’t accept it,” he said.
But through the agreement between the port and G-P, the port is responsible for the cleanup of the site.
Confused? It boils down to semantics: Liability means more than responsibility — it has a legal connotation. Legally, G-P will never be free from liability for environmental liability for the site under the Model Toxins Control Act.
The environmental insurance policy covers additional costs up to $50 million more than the cleanup estimate. If the cleanup exceeds that price tag, G-P is liable for extra costs, as well as natural resource damage assessment claims.
Rumor: City Council approved the Waterfront Futures Group’s Waterfront Vision & Framework Plan without a public hearing.
Fact or Fiction?: “If there’s one thing we can pride ourselves in Whatcom County, it is ample process opportunity,” Douglas said.
While public input on the project spanned 18 months, no record of an official public hearing could be found.
The Waterfront Futures Group released a draft of the framework to the port, City Council and public in June 2004, and the final draft was submitted in December of that year. Before that, the Waterfront Futures Group held two open houses for public comment and had public comment into 2005. City Council unanimously approved the framework Dec. 13, 2004. Minutes from the meeting specify the framework is not binding, but serves as guidelines for the project.
The city did document 29 public meetings in 2005 and 2006, where design and strategic guidelines were discussed. However, the concept of the marina had already been decided in mid-2004, which leads to the next fact or fiction.
Rumor: The plan for a marina in the ASB pond was put into a Port-city agreement and on the City Council agenda hours before the Council voted on it, limiting the ability for public to comment on the plan.
Fact or Fiction?: Darling said plans for the marina were in the agreement with the city from the beginning.
“The only reason we have the property is because the port condemned the lagoon for marina use,” he said.
The Port Commission unanimously passed Resolution 1194 on May 4, 2004, condemning the ASB pond, a month before the Waterfront Futures Group released the draft framework. The port had held a public hearing the previous month, although many community members complained it was not widely advertised.
Rumor: The port is contractually obliged to follow the cleanup plan agreed upon with G-P, and will only clean the site to industrial standards.
Fact or Fiction?: “They’re not planning an industrial redevelopment, they’re planning high rises,” du Pre said. “Someone is going to have to clean that facility to what the use dictates.”
But she added that that someone may not necessarily be the port.
Darling said from day one the port has contended the site will be mixed use, including retail, commercial and residential. He said the port’s insurance policy sets the cleanup standard to mixed use above industrial.
But the port does not have final say on how much the site will be cleaned — Ecology does, and Sullivan said the Model Toxins Control Act dictates that the department clean up toxic sites to appropriate levels.
“We will go about fulfilling that charge,” she said. “There’s nothing in the agreement between the port and G-P that can change that.”
However, the port did agree to one cleanup approach — labeled alternative six — in its agreement with G-P. Darling said the port spent a lot of time and resources in predicting which alternative Ecology would settle on.
“The cleanup decisions are based on science and law,” Darling said.
Ecology has preliminarily settled on alternative six. But if Ecology deems another alternative is better, the port will still own the property, and G-P will be liable for any extra costs.
Rumor: The interlocal agreements between the Port of Bellingham and the city of Bellingham are unfair and the city will never be able to recover its costs. The agreements between the port and city show the city bearing all of the project costs.
Fact or Fiction?: The city does not have a noose around its neck in its agreements with the port, Douglas said.
He pointed to state support for the project through the Local Infrastructure Financing Tool (LIFT) program. Douglas said the waterfront is the first project Washington state approved for LIFT, and that support, along with other aspects of the project, have given the city confidence in the redevelopment.
Darling said without sufficient return for its investment, the city would not be involved.
The city will have a stream of revenues from property and sales taxes that goes on forever from the project, and Darling said the port will have a limited revenue stream from the waterfront — the main revenue for the port will be from leasing and selling property on the site.
He added the port is shouldering its own share of the project outside of the cleanup.
The interlocal agreements show the port is responsible for marine infrastructure, which includes the marina, moorage and the shoreline.
The city bears the burden to design, construct and maintain infrastructure not on the water, including parking facilities for city-owned places such as parks. No dollar amount is prescribed to either the port or city.
Darling said the port has spent a lot of resources to determine its costs for the redevelopment, while the city is still determining its costs. The port’s estimate has not changed, while the city’s is still yet to be resolved, he said.
“At the end of day, costs will have to be good for both the port and the city,” he said.
Rumor: The marina planned for the ASB pond will only serve large, out-of-town yachts, not local citizens.
Fact or Fiction?: Darling and Douglas said all evidence points to the contrary. The port has a waiting list for moorage in its current county marinas. More than 80 percent of vessel owners moored in the marinas are Whatcom County residents, and Darling said the waiting list has a similar composition.
The people who own those boats represent a diverse cross section of the community, Darling said.
“Everybody in the harbor is not rich,” Douglas said.
But the new marina calls for larger slips for 40-foot-long and larger vessels, Darling said. He said many such boats are in the bay currently, and boats on the waiting list fit this criteria.
Squalicum Harbor houses boats ranging from 26 feet to 56 feet.
Rumor: Whatcom County government has no interest in helping with the waterfront redevelopment.
Fact or Fiction?: The county has committed to $1.1 million from the Economic Development Investment Program funds for the redevelopment of Bellingham’s waterfront. However, County Executive Pete Kremen said the county opted to not participate in the LIFT program.
Kremen said that decision was based on funding issues and the LIFT program, which works well for the city, but not for the county.
“It would not be wise for the county to commit such a large amount of money for an extended period of time,” Kremen said. “The city has ways of recouping investment in the waterfront, and the county doesn’t.”
But Kremen said it would be prudent and appropriate to collaborate on the project. Douglas agreed, but added that once the city has more of a brick and mortar plan in place, he thinks the county will contribute more.
“What happens here will add to the vibrancy of Whatcom County,” he said.
Rumor: The city will lose out on property tax revenue if Western Washington University expands to the waterfront, and developers will not pay any development or impact fees.
Fact or Fiction?: The interlocal agreements state non-property tax paying entities must negotiate a payment in lieu of property taxes with the port and city.
Western and the port are in negotiations on such an agreement, although nothing has been finalized.
The interlocal agreements also point to a need to stimulate growth in the area and give the city the ability to be judicious about imposing impact fees. Darling said who pays impact fees and who does not is an issue that needs to be sorted out as the project progresses, but no final decision has been made.
Rumor: The G-P site was a nuclear waste dump and is radioactive. The entire G-P site is contaminated.
Fact or Fiction?: After a local publication printed an anonymous photo of a Geiger counter showing radioactivity on the site, Ecology sent experts to look into the matter. No radioactivity was found, Darling said.
“Our worst contaminants are going to be mercury and dioxin, which are nasty,” du Pré said.
But much of the site is relatively clean. Du Pre said she’s primarily concerned about a few specific areas.
“They’re not going to be able to go down there and start digging without a clear sense of what they’re digging into,” she said.
Sullivan said Ecology collected hundreds of samples from the sediment and subsurface from various depths during a period of 10 years. The culmination of those samples has given Ecology a good assessment of what contaminants are on the site and where they are, she said.
Rumor: The majority of the public oppose Ecology’s cleanup plan.
Fact or Fiction?: If you read the headlines, it would appear the public is up in arms about the cleanup plan, and at hearings many have voiced their disgruntlement. But is this a case of the squeaky wheel makes the most noise? Or is Ecology and the port trying to grease the gears?
“It’s hard to gauge that,” Darling said.
He admitted it often appears the public is against Ecology’s plan, which is the plan supported by the port. But he said the amount of letters in support of the cleanup plan would indicate otherwise.
“It is true the most vocal commenters do not support the plan at the public hearings,” Sullivan said.
She said one local publication indicated most people spoke against the plan at a recent hearing with Ecology. But Sullivan said the minutes show only nine out of about 50 spoke — one supported the cleanup plan, one was non-committal and seven opposed it.
She said the letters Ecology receives about the plan are split evenly between support and opposition.
A count of letters to Ecology concerning the cleanup plan found 51 percent oppose the plan, 41 percent approve and the remainder are neutral. Among those who approve are Darling, Douglas and members from other government agencies. Among the dissenters are non profit watchdog groups, scientists, the Nooksack Tribe and Lummi Nation.
Rumor: The capping of the log pond is a failure.
Fact or Fiction?: The port capped sediment in the log pond in 2000 to contain high levels of mercury. Earlier this year, the port revealed part of the cap was eroding.
“We need to do some additional work to cap that material in the log pond,” Sullivan said.
But both Darling and Sullivan said the cap is a success.
The erosion was due to wave activity, but Sullivan said that’s what monitoring the cap was designed to do — identify any areas that may need to be revisited. The cap will serve as a template for the plan to cap more sediment in the waterway.
Sullivan said there is no increased or continued contamination of the log pond, and migrating salmon and natural eel grass beds have returned to the spot.
Rumor: The measure used to judge whether human consumption of fish and shellfish from the waterway is safe is below standard.
Fact or Fiction?: Sullivan said Ecology is assuming every person eats as much fish and shellfish as tribal members — which is above normal — and has taken a step beyond that to determine what human exposure to toxins would be. She said the criteria exceeds the standard criteria.
But du Pre said there is still concern.
“Our numbers paint a very different picture,” she said.
Du Pre said there is some potential for bioaccumulation for toxins up the food chain, and subsistent fishers are at more risk.
“I don’t think I can say it’s patently unsafe,” she said. “But I can say we do have questions whether consumption of fish from the waterway will be safe for all people.”
Rumor: The potential risk of an earthquake liquefying the landfill has not been taken into account.
Fact or Fiction?: Western geology professors have voiced concerns about the stability of the site, saying the G-P landfill likely would liquefy during a major earthquake. Since Western’s proposal to expand to the waterfront includes relocating Huxley College of the Environment to the site, it makes sense the geologists are a bit uneasy about the prospect of their facilities sinking into the bay. But the warning is nothing new.
“The geologists have been saying that for years,” du Pre said. “I don’t know why it’s a surprise now.”
Darling said the port has obtained reports from the geologists on the issue, and the environmental impact statement will address those concerns.
Sullivan said Ecology has examined how soils under the water would roll and move and the potential exposure of contaminated material during an earthquake.
“The remedy that is being proposed is a remedy that Ecology’s sedimentologists and engineers have determined would allow for long-term sustainability, even in the face of an earthquake,” Sullivan said.
But the potential is still there.
“What we do know is that fill tends to liquefy,” du Pre said.
She said concerns about the site’s safety are appropriate, but she is looking forward to the redevelopment of the site.
“Otherwise what are we going to do?” she asked. “Look at a pulp mill for the rest of our life?”