The no action alternative
THE NO ACTION ALTERNATIVE: Let’s talk about sewage overflows!
Port of Bellingham commissioners this week reasserted their votes to remove their popular and accomplished executive director, Charlie Sheldon, just 18 months on the job, after a petition effort collected nearly 1,000 signatures. “See No Evil,” “Hear No Evil,” and “Speak No Evil” clung to the evil branch, declining 2-1 to revisit their decision.
The middle monkey, Commissioner Jim Jorgensen, had come under public pressure to reverse his decision. Jorgensen explained that changing his position would not heal the rifts within the agency; while Commissioner Scott Walker dissembled and distorted the public record and Sheldon’s record, declaring the director had only planned to work for the agency for a brief time. The crowd jeered, and Sheldon himself said afterward Walker’s statements were false. Sheldon supporter, Commissioner Michael McAuley expressed his disgust with the entire proceeding.
Lacking rudder, keel or propeller, the SS Port of Bellingham now limps toward a meeting with the City of Bellingham May 3, ostensibly to resolve remaining quarrels over waterfront development before handing the matter over to the Bellingham Planning Commission later this summer. Yet more questions than ever cloud the highest and best use for the former Georgia-Pacific mill site.
In 2004, the port used that language in a lawsuit filed against departing Georgia-Pacific West, seizing the ASB wastewater treatment facility before the company might complete an agreement with the Dept. of Ecology to use the 29-acre basin as part of a plan to dredge and clean Whatcom Waterway. The port argued conversion of the site to a yacht marina represented a higher, better use under doctrines of eminent domain. Walker and his gang planned to scrape the uplands to an industrial standard and then flip the property in a sale to finance marina construction. The port swapped in its own plan to dismantle the ASB and leave most of the contaminants in the waterway, going so far as to lobby Congress to decommission the waterway as a federal navigation channel so as to avoid the port’s duty to dredge it (while at the same time trying, unsuccessfully, to lure a federal tenant—the marine research agency NOAA—to the now decommissioned federal channel).
Former Mayor Dan Pike had actively discussed with Sheldon a practical use for the wastewater treatment basin by the City of Bellingham, an offer that would create rents for the port but might seriously crimp conversion of the basin into a luxury yacht marina, the nucleus of the port’s commitment for waterfront redevelopment. Reportedly, Sheldon was open to the proposal, being unconvinced economics in the near term favored construction of a new marina. For his own part, Pike had access to the agency’s former accountant, John Carter, now the city’s chief financial officer, who had studied those economics and also found them unconvincing.
In the former mayor’s view, a proposal to use the ASB in its original function as a municipal wastewater treatment facility afforded the port a face-saving alternative, a way to ease commissioners away from an untenable plan.
Unlike newer systems that attempt to isolate stormwater from sewage flows, the oldest sewers in the city’s central district combine flows, overloading the district during storm events. Pumping stations near C Street have long been inadequate, and the city has long contemplated a wet weather facility to ease flow problems in the area.
Public Works engineers modestly place this combined sewer overflow (CSO) facility on a map diagram with a large red circle and question mark centered roughly around, oh golly, the largest underutilized wastewater treatment facility on the west coast of North America—the ASB lagoon.
“From a technical standpoint, the site is well suited for remote wet weather management,” engineers wrote in the 2006 comprehensive sewer plan. “A wet weather facility located somewhere in the vicinity of the C Street overflow could effectively intercept overflows before they are discharged into Bellingham Bay, with relatively minor piping and pumping requirements.”
That effort, of course, would be greatly assisted by the existing outfall pipe leading out of the ASB, a permitted pipe the port plans to decommission and disable.
Sheldon began to describe the marina as a “phase two” project, a reordering and reemphasis that perhaps unnerved Walker. Even to entertain a new series of options or a gentle change in direction must have seemed an existential threat to that earlier plan of a waterfront built around private wealth and private property. And just as Walker led the effort to condemn the ASB and take it from Georgia-Pacific, he similarly led the charge to condemn Sheldon and remove him from his position.
Sheldon’s removal rivets the port to an untenable and ridiculous plan.
But the agency never did have a Plan B. Every iteration of site plan proposals includes a marina, including the port’s laughable “no action alternative.”
A “no action alternative” considers the economic and environmental consequences of not undertaking a project, and establishes an important baseline for considering the merits of a proposal. So obsessed was the port with their marina they included it in every site plan, larding fraud upon fraud. The city, in a position to rightly complain of such fraud, instead signed away its oversight authority early on, allowing the port—the project applicant—as SEPA lead.
City officials must now consider signing more agreements that further bind them to a diseased, adrift agency in a plan that dismantles a valuable and useful city asset. Sewage overflows, indeed.
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