Port defends Bellingham's NOAA bid against attack by Oregon's Wyden

Senator says Bellingham's proposed site is too toxic

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 9, 2010 

In this 2007 file photo, crew leader Jeff Brawley, left, and chief engineer Bob Dennis walk in front of the Okeanos Explorer, a 225-foot former U.S. Navy ship that was converted into a NOAA deep sea research vessel at Fairhaven Shipyards in Bellingham. NOAA announced Tuesday it will move its Marine Operations Center to Newport, Ore.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

An Oregon Senator's accusations about environmental problems on the Bellingham waterfront are off the mark, Port of Bellingham Environmental Director Mike Stoner said Tuesday, March 9.

Stoner was responding to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden's contention that environmental issues should disqualify Bellingham as a potential site for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Operations Center. The Oregon Democrat made those contentions in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, whose department includes NOAA.

Wyden suggested that the Bellingham waterfront's legacy of industrial contamination "could limit the ability of the (NOAA) fleet to function properly and compromise the health and safety of the NOAA employees who would be located there."

Not so, Stoner replied in an e-mail. He said the port has been busy developing environmental cleanup plans that will deal with the contamination.

"The cleanup will be protective of people and families who will live, work and play on the new waterfront, including 33 acres of new parks and public access to over three miles of restored shorelines," Stoner wrote.

The environmental consultant that NOAA hired to evaluate rival bids received full information on contamination on the waterfront and plans to clean it up, and raised no red flags, Stoner said.

Wyden's letter to Locke was written in defense of NOAA's August 2009 selection of Newport, Ore., as a new home for its Pacific center, which is now located in Seattle. Port of Bellingham and city officials had mounted a vigorous bid to get NOAA to move the center here, but Bellingham's hopes were dashed after Newport used a hefty state subsidy to offer NOAA a lease price far below Bellingham's.

Since then, Washington's Sen. Maria Cantwell has mounted an attack on the NOAA site selection process in hopes of keeping the center in this state.

Wyden's letter to Locke says "new information" shows that the Bellingham site proposed for the NOAA center is "surrounded by one federal Superfund site and no less than 12 different Washington State Department of Ecology cleanup sites."

Stoner said there's nothing new about Bellingham Bay's environmental issues, or the port's efforts to deal with them in cooperation with state and federal agencies, including NOAA.

"We've been working on this since 1996," Stoner said.

In 2004, Stoner said, NOAA recognized the quality of Bellingham's waterfront cleanup efforts when the agency selected Bellingham as one of the first three pilot participants in NOAA's Portfields waterfront cleanup program, along with Tampa, Fla., and New Bedford, Mass.

"The pilots were chosen for their willingness to participate, unique set of needs, commitment to port redevelopment, innovative approaches to waterfront planning and revitalization, and overall value federal assistance would add to the redevelopment effort," NOAA says on its Portfields Web site.

The "Superfund site" mentioned in Wyden's letter is the Oeser Co. wood treatment site off Marine Drive, about two miles from the proposed location of the NOAA center here. A federally mandated cleanup of the Oeser site already is under way.

Funding and planning are on track for cleanup projects on land and in the water closer to the proposed NOAA berth at the port's shipping terminal off Cornwall Avenue on Whatcom Waterway, Stoner said.

The planning and study phase of the cleanup has been time-consuming. Stoner said physical cleanup on land and in the waterway probably won't get under way in earnest until 2012. The work, when it begins, would not interfere with NOAA operations.

While the cleanup work will be costly, funding should not be an issue, Stoner said. He noted that the port has already set aside millions to cover its share of the work, and the state has committed to provide millions more.

John Diamond, spokesman for Democratic Sen. Cantwell, said she would have no comment on Wyden's letter.

"We don't want to get into a back-and-forth with other Senators on it," Diamond said.

Cantwell recently called for a U.S. Inspector General probe of NOAA's site selection process in awarding the Pacific center to Newport.

Asked if such a probe could do anything to reverse NOAA's decision in favor of Newport, Diamond said he wasn't sure.

While NOAA recently agreed to revisit an apparent floodplain issue at the Newport site, NOAA officials also made it clear they don't expect that issue to force them to reconsider their move to the Oregon port. Both NOAA and the Port of Newport are moving ahead on NOAA's new West Coast home. But Diamond said Cantwell doesn't think the struggle is over.

"This thing is still pending as far as we're concerned," Diamond said. "We'd like the Inspector General to move with some alacrity. ... We want them to look at it while the whole thing is still pending."

Reach JOHN STARK at 715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com . Read his Consumer Protection Blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/consumer.

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