The Gristle

Divergent Streams
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DIVERGENT STREAMS: A ship broke loose from its mooring along Whatcom Waterway last week but grounded in shallows before it could swing far. It’s a sham ship, mothballed here as a dodge of arcane U.S. maritime restrictions, parked along a sham pier generating rents in the illusion of a working waterfront. Briefly it became a shipwreck piled against an even bigger shipwreck—the Port of Bellingham’s plan for the central waterfront.

Port commissioners earlier this month authorized $216,333 to Aspect Consulting to begin the design process of the initial cleanup of the pulp and tissue mill area of the former Georgia-Pacific site along Whatcom Waterway. Predictably, commissioners favored the cheapest remedial plan that—at an estimated cost of $5.7 million—leaves most toxics in place with minimal controls on groundwater contaminants that might leach into Whatcom Waterway. The waterway itself will be left to silt over, destroying its potential to receive working ships along a working waterfront. Half of the cost of this shabby cleanup will be covered by the Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA), the remainder will be borne by local taxpayers.

Stepping back, every cleanup project proposed for Bellingham Bay has been minimalist in scope, conceptually isolated from other similar (even adjacent) projects, managed by separate consultants and contractors, but all on a dismal, impoverished vector that ensures poisons are left in place forever with minimal controls. Perhaps if we view it only in pieces in isolation we can never assemble its monstrous folly.

Meanwhile, leaders in Seattle who would not accept squalid standards have received $342 million for a Superfund cleanup that will remove up to 90 percent of industrial pollutants from the Duamish River. Nearly 1 million cubic yards of poisonous sludge will be scooped up, put onto barges and trucks and hauled out of that city— leaving a clean, deep, economically vital channel—thanks to the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, a feisty activist group that had lobbied the federal government for more dredging to be included in the final plan. And they insisted that heavy industry like Boeing would remain on the hook to ease the public costs of a quality cleanup. They would not accept an outcome that left their community poisoned.

That could have been us.

In 1996, federal, state, tribal and local governments joined with industry to form the Bellingham Bay Demonstration Pilot team. The mission of the pilot team was to develop a new cooperative, bay-wide approach to clean up contamination, control pollution sources and restore habitat, with consideration for land and water uses at a dozen cleanup sites around Bellingham Bay. The action would serve as a model for other harbors around the state.

The team identified ten different cleanup proposals for the bay, and coalesced around one that would have employed Georgia-Pacific’s ASB wastewater treatment lagoon as a receiving area for a thorough and extensive cleanup of the bay and its shorelines.

So potent was the prioritization of goals produced by this Pilot team that Seattle’s Lower Duwamish Waterway Group actually cited them in their 2001 application for Superfund.

The Port of Bellingham wrecked all that, elbowing in with a preemptive condemnation action on the ASB treatment lagoon and subsequent negotiation with GP that let that industry off the hook for cleanup costs in exchange for assurances the port would seek the most dismal standard for cleanup.

While Seattle lobbied for (and received) federal Superfund status, the Port of Bellingham lobbied to have Whatcom Waterway decommissioned as a navigable channel, destroying at once both federal assistance to dredge the waterway to depth and thus the waterway itself as a navigable channel for Bellingham’s maritime future. While Seattle got the attention of the federal government, the Port of Bellingham screwed around for ten years threatening and holding hostages, burning sacks of public money while state MTCA funds dried up and went elsewhere. Indeed, it’s widely (though unofficially) acknowledged that the state Dept. of Ecology took the lead on two remediation projects in 2013 precisely out of concern delay could render funds unavailable. Notably, when DOE led the effort, contaminants were actually removed.

A city first in line 20 years ago is only now starting to begin the planning of the first phase of an initial cleanup while other communities have raced by, snapping up cash as they’ve passed.

At every step, city officials have shrugged and weakly accepted the terrible outcomes dictated by the misfeasance of the Port of Bellingham.

Negotiations have seized with a potential master developer, Harcourt Developments of Dublin, Ireland. The broadly understood reason for the impasse is the sale price for the land. Harcourt wants it for less than the port can bear to sell it for, because the sale must generate revenues sufficient to complete even an atrocious cleanup. But why should Harcourt pay top dollar for contaminated land?

The port indemnified the only private party with liability and duty (and capacity) to clean the site, Georgia-Pacific West, with assurances GP would be brought in only if the cost of clean-up soared above an established price ($100 million) in tandem with guarantees the port would never seek that level of cleanup. The only potentially liable party left holding the bag is the public through its representatives, with a mandate from the state that the site must be cleaned.

Small wonder, then, that the port drags its heels on cleanup, for to proceed would instantly reveal the dementia of the port’s thimblerigging. And there is no Plan B, the agency has aggressively seen to that. There is merely shrugging and confessing that their hands are now tied—yes, by ropes of the port’s own manufacture and knotting.

“Dirtier than Duamish,” that’s our legacy.

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