The Gristle

Letters from Lummi III
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LETTERS FROM LUMMI III: Bellingham City Council continues to struggle with the massive and messy master plan for the central waterfront, holding a series of long and detailed committee meetings on cleanup, habitat restoration, and planning for the future reuse and redevelopment of the site. The bedrock (or perhaps “consolidated dredged sediments prone to liquefaction” is a more precise phrase) upon which all of this rests is, of course, the cleanup, from which all other assumptions about the fate of the waterfront proceed and are based.

Odd, then, that waterfront plans are being finalized in advance and independent of more comprehensive planning for habitat restoration in Bellingham. The city launches that master planning this week to help shape the strategic commitments city policymakers adopted in 2009.

“When complete, the plan will be used to guide restoration and protection activities, support grant funding requests, facilitate communication and partnerships, and provide sound scientific information to inform policy decisions,” said Renee LaCroix, ecology and restoration manager for the city’s Public Works department.

Remarkable throughout the waterfront planning process is the degree and intensity by which the full spectrum of options has been systematically foreclosed by administrative decisions—the removal of the Georgia-Pacific ASB wastewater treatment lagoon as a tool to assist in a more thorough and cost-effective cleanup; the demolition of buildings and the removal of industrial equipment and infrastructure in advance of planning decisions that might retain them; the papering over of earlier public opinion critical of the plan. In dozens of ways both small and gross, options have been herded, filtered and eliminated until we are left with but one choice that—of course!—is the only one feasible. Perhaps the most illuminating of recent administrative actions was the decision by the Port of Bellingham to dredge portions of the Squalicum waterway and marina and dump those dioxin-tainted sediments in piles on the Cornwall Beach landfill, south of the central waterfront. This was done in anticipation they would be used to cover over worse contaminants in the landfill, yet also done in advance of any decision that a middlin’ quality capping strategy would be the one actually favored by the public. This was also done despite a Bellingham Bay Comprehensive Strategy in 2000 that called for contaminants to be removed from the landfill, a goal reiterated in several instances since, including recommendations by the Waterfront Futures Group. Now we learn that removing those dumped piles of dredging would—alas!—only add to the costs of a more thorough cleanup of the landfill, making a more thorough cleanup even more unfeasible.

The capping and covering of very bad toxins with less-bad toxins is included among most low-cost strategies for cleaning the central waterfront—the Cornwall Beach project is the first (and pilot) remediation that could set the tone for others to follow—yet it is not at all clear the cheapest option is actually the one favored by city taxpayers.

Comments from Lummi Nation perhaps focus the broader community concerns:

“This filling and destruction of habitat and fishing areas that our people rely on with the garbage of our neighbors is highly insulting,” Merle Jefferson, executive director of the Lummi Natural Resources Dept. wrote the state Dept. of Ecology earlier this month. “Now, the liable parties are seeking to compound these insults with a conclusion that removal of the contaminated soil and garbage would be too expensive.”

Jefferson points out that a more through cleanup would provide higher levels of protection of human health and the environment, and have the highest certainty of the alternatives considered with the highest net environmental benefit based on the amount of aquatic habitat improved and created. Moreover, he noted, the porduct would be permanent, meaning a lower lifetime cost.

The proposed alternative, Jefferson notes, “allows the City of Bellingham to essentially ‘pocket’ all of the cost-savings that it has already realized by dumping garbage into our fishing areas rather than shipping its municipal solid waste to an appropriate upland location.” In essence, Bellingham behaved terribly by dumping garbage onto city shorelines in past decades and now proposes to leave the garbage there, capped by other garbage.

Ecology, currently considering public response to the cleanup proposed by the port, has not formally responded to the Lummi complaint.

“Since the beginning of the waterfront planning and design process, the community has continually voiced support for extensive habitat and shoreline restoration in Bellingham Bay,” Wendy Steffensen noted in comments to City Council. Steffensen is lead scientist with the North Sound Baykeeper team. “It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring a heavily contaminated industrial zone back to life, restoring the shoreline to a more natural state. The Waterfront District sub-area plan provides a general framework for habitat restoration, listing environmental considerations policies and implementation strategies for habitat restoration, but it lacks the comprehensiveness that a restoration opportunity as unique and complex as Bellingham Bay deserves.”

“We are left with a waterfront plan advancing quickly towards enactment, without any proper review of plant and animal impacts, and therefore, of necessary mitigation,” said Wendy Harris, who frequently comments on Bellingham’s environmental practices. “This ensures inadequate habitat protection and restoration, and calls into question the legal validity of the waterfront plan.

“The city needs to supplement the waterfront district EIS to analyze plant and animal impacts.”

The City of Bellingham is hosting a public open house on the draft Habitat Restoration Master Plan at 6pm Thurs., Oct. 3 at the Best Western Lakeway Inn Mount Baker Room, 714 Lakeway Dr. You are encouraged to attend.

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