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The Gristle

Shallow Thinking

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

SHALLOW THINKING: In his remarks last week to the Washington State Transportation Commission, Port of Bellingham Executive Director Rob Fix almost forgot to mention port plans for Bellingham’s central waterfront, so focused was he on detailing airport operations. He did forget entirely, until his memory was prodded by commissioners, to mention the county’s numerous water-dependent businesses and industries, much of it active on port properties. In fact, on port property alone an estimated 4,000 jobs are attributed to maritime trade, according to data provided by the port and the Working Waterfront Coalition. Annual revenue produced by maritime trade is estimated at $682 million, driving nearly half of the agency’s economic impacts.

It was a curious lapse by Director Fix, all the more puzzling as the agency was at the moment struggling with a barge grounded in Whatcom Waterway, unable to offload its enormous cargo at Colony Wharf. The 7,000-ton barge was heavy with gravel quarried from British Columbia, part of a multi-million-dollar contract for Cowden Gravel, a local business. Operators had attempted to float the barge in at high tide, but were unable to do so without partially excavating and removing some of the cargo at considerable cost to Cowden Gravel.

The incident underscores the folly of the port’s plan for the central waterfront and, in particular, the agency’s Marine Trade Center concept, hobbled by a shallow waterway, allowed by the port to grow more shallow as a means to dodge any duty to clean it. The port lobbied Congress in 2007 to deauthorize the channel as a navigable waterway, thereby destroying federal resources that might have been brought to the task of dredging and removing contaminated sediments.

“The cleanup of these areas,” the port explained in the agency’s preliminary design report, “is consistent with the plan management of the Inner Waterway as a multi-purpose waterway with shallow and intermediate drafts.

“The design concept assumes that the engineered cap within the Phase 1 areas of the Inner Waterway will be placed such that the top of the cap is located at least 2 feet below the ‘effective water depth’ of the waterway (i.e., the water depth to be actively maintained to support navigation uses),” the report continues. The channel draws just 8 feet of water at low tide at Colony Wharf, an asset transferred from the City of Bellingham to the port as a means to allow the agency to assemble properties for a Marine Trade Center, now demonstrated to be a crippled concept.

Cleanup of the inner waterway is an essential early action upon which many other actions depend, including public access and possible development of the former Georgia-Pacific industrial site. Yet permits have not been issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), nor does it seem likely those permits will be issued any time soon.

In 2006, Lummi Nation filed a formal complaint with the Corps, declaring the inadequacy of cleanup harmed habitat and interfered with their treaty fishing rights.

“The Lummi Nation position has been that contaminated sediment should be removed from the aquatic environment and disposed of at an appropriate upland disposal area,” tribal leaders wrote.

“The Corps considers concerns regarding treaty rights as part of our trust responsibility,” the agency noted in a statement. “The Corps has not set a deadline for resolution.”

With the current commander of the USACE scheduled to retire this summer, it’s looking increasingly unlikely the Corps will issue permits this year, noted Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville.

“It will be like starting the permit process all over with a new commander,” Linville warned. “You can’t open the site to the public until it is clean, and it may be difficult to get development commitments until there is more certainty.”

For greater traction and leverage on their claims, Lummi Nation has expanded their resistance to all waterfront projects in Bellingham Bay, issuing objections most recently to a cleanup action plan for the Cornwall Avenue Landfill approved earlier this month by City Council.

“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, director of the Lummi Natural Resources Dept., wrote the state Dept. of Ecology in 2013. “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.”

On March 3, Lummi Nation again pressed its objections to the city’s Overwater Walkway project, which would connect planned parkland at Cornwall Avenue to the Boulevard Park and Taylor Street Dock trail network.

“Our most recent proposal to them would remove numerous old piers and pilings from the bay and open up access to 33 acres for fishing,” Linville said. “I hope the perfect doesn’t become the enemy of the good, and that we can work on projects together that benefit the bay,” she said.

It all circles back to the inadequacy of the port’s plan for Whatcom Waterway, a plan that would cap most contaminants in place in a woefully shallow waterway hostile to heavy industry and maritime jobs. It’s a plan that displeases the port’s greatest potential allies, including the tribes and the industries eager to expand the barging capacity of Whatcom Waterway. The amnesia of the port director for this maritime heritage is both telling and troubling.

The port treats all this as a done deal in a process not of their design or control—their hands are tied, staff lamented to baffled port commissioners—while the ink on their plan has hardly dried and not a shovelful of marine cleanup has been permitted. A change to the plan at this stage would be like starting all over.

Perhaps they should.

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