That Which Is Permitted
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THAT WHICH IS PERMITTED: This week marks the 10th anniversary of the signing of the purchase and sale agreement that transferred the Bellingham tissue mill site and adjacent properties along Whatcom Waterway from Georgia-Pacific West into the ownership and control of the Port of Bellingham—or nearly a quarter of the portion of a 50-year plan projected to clean and redevelop the city’s central waterfront. Under the terms of the 2005 agreement, the port assumed all environmental liability of Georgia-Pacific for the cleanup and remediation of pollutants in the waterway and adjacent properties. Notably, perhaps ironically, apart from certain career staff no one in a leadership position with the Port of Bellingham at the signing of these documents remains at the agency. The Port Commission has entirely cycled through, and a new commission is responsible for the completion of the terms of the agreement.

Earlier this month, a divided Port Commission voted 2-1 to pay the environmental and engineering firm Anchor QEA $193,700 to develop a final engineering design report for cleanup of Whatcom Waterway in anticipation of a construction bid this spring. Environmental cleanup could begin as early as August, commissioners learned.

Under the proposed plan, the depth of Whatcom Waterway at low tide could be as little as 8 feet, foreclosing on and potentially destroying the utility of the port’s nascent Marine Trades Center along the western side of the waterway, a property once partially under control of the City of Bellingham as Colony Wharf. Strongly opposed to a plan for the wharf that would foreclose on economic development—the very mission of the Port of Bellingham—Commissioner Michael McAuley could not support the vote.

“Ports have a specific mission,” he said. “Their mission is economic development. Everything we do supports that. We do cleanup not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it supports economic development in the county. I think this plan clearly makes a statement to the marine trades industry we’re not interested in what they’re doing.”

An interesting point of history, the outer Whatcom Waterway was originally built to the precise dimensions of the Panama Canal, also under construction, in an era when it was imagined Bellingham and Whatcom County could be competitive leaders in marine trades. While McAuley agrees that heyday has not arrived, he argues barging capacity is essential to marine trades at all scales and may become even more important in the future, as transportation imperatives change in the face of costlier fuel. Indeed, the waterway could serve as a staging area for the transfer of construction materials vital to any plan to redevelop the central waterfront. Without that maine capacity, materials must be trucked in.

Port staff reported that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) had issued the required permits for Whatcom Waterway after lengthy delay. The delay in part resulted from a required consultation with the Corps and Lummi Nation based on tribal objections that the level of environmental cleanup and habitat restoration was insufficient.

Negotiations were able to secure agreement with Lummi Nation; however, the reality is the tribe is transferring its focus and resources on a challenge to the Gateway Pacific Terminal at Cherry Point, where tribal leaders have demanded USACE reject the permit for a pier based on concerns that the export of up to 48 million metric tons of coal would destroy hereditary fishing grounds protected by treaty.

“The increased vessel traffic would interfere with our harvest, and the resulting pollution from fuel and coal dust would create irreparable harm to our fish and cannot be mitigated,” Lummi Chairman Tim Ballew II said recently. “There isn’t a dollar amount that the coal industry can pay to make up for the damage the terminal would cause to our people, our waters and our resources. So the Corps, as a federal agency, has an obligation to uphold Lummi’s protected rights by denying the permit.

“In conversations with the Corps on Whatcom Waterway, we gave our approval for phase 1 cleanup of industrial contamination,” Ballew noted, recognizing that Bellingham’s formerly industrialized waterway would never factor significantly into expected fish harvests for the tribe. In short, they negotiated their losses for focus on bigger fish in the sea.

This has been the despair of the Bellingham waterfront, as all activist energy remains riveted at Cherry Point while the city’s central waterfront languishes under a feeble plan with little hope of rescue. The tribe was one hope; the rigor of a port commission focused on its mission was another. The City of Bellingham, which cut loose its assets at Colony Wharf in order to consolidate properties to the south of the site, was—alas—another.

The Corps could have also played a more central part, as the agency is skilled to dredge the channel to depth as an authorized Federal Waterway, helping defray those costs. The port destroyed that option by lobbying Congress to deauthorize our public waterway so as to dodge the duty to dredge it.

Frankly, even the polluters might have played a stronger role, had the port not inked a purchase and sale agreement with private industry (now owned by the billionaire Koch brothers) that transferred their liability to the public.

Port staff quarreled with McAuley that efforts to deepen the channel would be prohibitively expensive, perhaps doubling the $8.5 million cost projected under the current plan. But it is a prohibition of staff’s own design and manufacture as they’ve eliminated or driven off all parties with duty and interest to help.

Bellingham’s maritime future sounds less like an incoming tide than the plaintive echoes of air escaping an empty shell.

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