Tumbling Down: Old Georgia-Pacific buildings razed to make way for waterfront development

Perched 90 feet in the air on the roof of a condemned former bleach plant at the site of the former Georgia-Pacific Tissue Mill, workers carefully pieced together scaffolding as they prepared to pull away three massive sections of the building.

Such an immense demolition presents many challenges, but Brian Parberry, co-owner of SCRAP-IT, the Ferndale-based company undertaking the project, said one the largest issues for his crew members was simply keeping their footing as they worked to bring down the decrepit structure.

“The roof was in such disrepair from all the caustic,” Parberry said. “The building was basically falling apart.”

The Bleach Plant Building came down Feb. 15, the third demolition in a nearly $500,000 project SCRAP-IT is handling for the Port of Bellingham. The company has also dismantled the Pulp Storage Warehouse and the Pulp Screening Room on the landscape of the former mill site.

The 9,916-square-foot bleach building was built in the late 1940s.

Workers are now busy sorting through the rubble for items and material to reuse or recycle. Activity on the project should continue through March, according to the port.

The site, now called the Waterfront District, is the center of a massive redevelopment plan and environmental cleanup effort coordinated by the port and the city of Bellingham, along with the state Department of Ecology.

All three buildings in the demolition project were found to be unsuitable for redevelopment.

Project coordinators from SCRAP-IT estimated about 90 percent of the building materials from the demolitions – including more than 3 million pounds of scrap metal from the structures and old equipment left inside of them – could be recycled or reused.

After the bleach plant demolition, Parberry said they hadn’t yet figured out exactly how much material they had managed to salvage. He placed the final scrap metal figure in the 3-4 million pound range.

“It’s pretty much what we figured,” Parberry said.

Georgia-Pacific operated pulp, paper and chemical plants on the 137-acre industrial property for much of the 20th century. It began phasing out its operations on the site in 1999.

The port acquired it in January 2005.

One of the next major projects on the redevelopment timeline involves taking down the Mercury Cell Building toward the southern section of the site, as well as removing 450 tons of mercury-contaminated soil and material.

The process, which is being done in tandem with the ecology department, should begin by summer, said Michael Stoner, the port’s director of environmental programs.

Together, both agencies completed removal last fall of 8,000 tons of petroleum-contaminated soil from around a large abandoned tank once used to store bunker fuel.

Stoner said the excavation and removal of the contaminated earth went according to plan, though crews did find and reroute some stormwater pipes that had not previously been discovered during prior surveys of the property.

“Whenever you dig into the ground on a site like this, you typically run into something you weren’t expecting,” Stoner said.

The mercury building was used by Georgia-Pacific to produce chlorine-based bleaching agents for its paper products. The building’s main period of operation was before clean water and other environmental regulations, so contamination was strong, particularly in the foundation and ground beneath the structure, Stoner said.

Highly toxic troughs of elemental mercury literally flowed through the building, he said.

“It was kind of like a huge car battery, if you can think about it,” Stoner said.

Demolishing the building will likely take around two months. Anytime crews deal with mercury contamination, precautions are necessary, Stoner said.

One of the major challenges will be ensuring mercury-contaminated elements don’t impact storm water runoff.

The port and ecology department plan to use plastic-lined berms to store material before hauling it off site and seal the asphalt beneath the material staging areas. Stoner said he is confident the contaminated material can be removed safely.

Removing toxic materials from the site will pave the way for the roads, parks and mixed residential and commercial buildings that will shape the new city district.

“It should be a busy looking site for quite sometime,” Stoner said. “Then, hopefully we’ll see some development down there.”


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