Heel dragging and finger pointing
HEEL DRAGGING AND FINGER POINTING: When Bellingham Mayor Dan Pike took office four years ago, “I was told by a port employee that at that time the cleanup was two years out and it has been two years out ever since,” he said at a recent forum. The mayor suggested the slow pace could jeopardize efforts for waterfront redevelopment.
Pike made his remarks at a League of Women Voters voters’ forum. The forum was televised; and the mayor’s comments drew fire from the Port of Bellingham.
“We have been committed to working alongside the city on securing essential MTCA funding for both port and city cleanup sites,” Port Executive Director Charlie Sheldon responded. The Model Toxics Control Act was approved by state voters as a means to raise funds to clean up contaminated sites and to prevent the creation of future hazardous waste sites.
“I am very concerned that public comments made during the election season do not jeopardize our efforts to gain state and federal funding for our joint project,” Sheldon warned. “Our best chances for success will occur when our two organizations work together on this project.
“Ecology tells us again and again that land use decisions must precede cleanup decisions,” he stressed. ”They need to know how the site will be used in order to define a safe remedy. In the case of the waterfront, the master plan should have been completed years ago. Completion of the master plan is not dependent on cleanup.
“MTCA site remediation is a lengthy process,” Sheldon cautioned. “Ecology’s own information says that the average cleanup takes over 12 years. The waterfront is not your average site. It includes six different MTCA sites, each of which are unusually complicated.”
Pike responded that although he wished he’d phrased his answer differently, he stood by his remarks.
“My perspective continues to be if someone is portraying for 15 years that the future is just two years out, then at some point they must own that,” Pike said. He suggested the city has been bound to a kind of strategic management style that ties everything together as a means of applying pressure to resolve points of disagreement, often with imposed timetables and deadlines to heighten the pressure.
“We are making progress” Pike said, “but the way this has been constructed, unless there is total agreement on all parts of the plan, we cannot move forward in isolation on any one of part of the plan.”
One senses that the pace of site cleanup has not been brisk enough to satisfy even the state Dept. of Ecology, which stepped in recently to get a cleanup underway.
Ecology announced in August the agency would supervise the removal of contaminated soils from the site of an old fuel oil bunker near Whatcom Waterway, as well as those contaminated by mercury from a section of the old Georgia-Pacific site known as the “caustic plume” subarea, where mercury vapor escaped from the mill’s chlor-alkali operations. Work on the bunker is projected to begin this fall, with removal of mercury-laden soils anticipated in the spring.
Delays around the waterfront have hardly been unilateral.
Sheldon recently expressed concerns that the port had expected the master plan for development would arrive in front of the Bellingham Planning Commission in 2011. Delayed a year, those plans may arrive by November, with the planning commission making its recommendations to council perhaps by summer, 2012.
Time and opportunity move on.
Earlier this spring the governor announced she would extend MTCA to a wider variety of potential projects to help jump start cleanups around the state as a means of boosting the state economy and easing Olympia’s financial woes. Her proposal made the funds available to a number of purposes, including stormwater drainage projects in agriculture and forestry.
Where Bellingham was once in front of the line for money for cleanup, delays and the increase in competitive projects have driven the mill site priorities somewhere to the middle of the pack, with funds now guaranteed only to clean the inner waterway, and only through 2013.
A program of revenue matches from the state, the Local Infrastructure Financing Tool created by the legislature in 2006, has also languished. Under the LIFT, The city is eligible to receive up to $1 million per year for 25 years, for a maximum of $25 million, to be used for repayment of bonds issued to finance public improvements, in essence money that can be spent now based on an expected increase in property values.
According to the city, the clock has to start on the LIFT also no later than 2013 or the opportunity is lost. The city delayed enacting the program after property values collapsed in 2007 and development around the GP property stalled out.
Yet even if documents roll out as scheduled, Bellingham City Council response is likely to be grave.
“We did not question the basic assumptions surrounding the building of a marina for yachts and gave a regulatory pass on what could become a white elephant like it has for the City of Bremerton due to the economic failure of a similar yacht marina,” Jack Weiss lamented recently in comments to his fellow council members.
“Council was told in an emergency special meeting with the port on April 20, 2009, that because of a grant application that was to be turned in within a few days, that public and advisory board review would be suspended,” Weiss continued. “Further, we would need to approve a plan that was 180 degrees opposite of what was agreed to in 2006. The unsuccessful grant application for this emergency situation was not turned in within a few days,” he complained, “but was actually submitted five months later. Through that 4-2 vote, the council has created a mess that it has ignored during the last 2½ years, while staff—with our blessing—digs us in deeper.”
“When I took office, the port was very set on a fast-track to do some really questionable, expensive things,” the mayor confessed. “I couldn’t get along with them and at the same time stop them.”
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