BELLINGHAM - A bill advanced by a local state senator would make it easier to fund slow-moving cleanup projects on Bellingham Bay.
Part of the solution, said Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, would be to change the way the agency overseeing the cleanups does its job.
Ericksen visited Port of Bellingham offices Friday, March 15, to hear from port and city officials about how the bill might be of most help to the waterfront projects.
The bill, which is still being debated in the Senate, would make money more readily available to projects that have passed all reviews and are ready to begin. It also would benefit projects still under review by creating an incentive for the Department of Ecology to review projects more efficiently. Ecology would be required to commit to a 10-year funding plan, Ericksen said.
Ecology, which is supposed to be a partner in the cleanup program, has become more of a barrier, Ericksen said. Reviews of waterfront cleanup projects have taken as long as 17 years, according to city officials.
"There have been delays because of changes in land use plans," Ecology spokesman Dustin Terpening said. "This then changes the cleanup that is necessary to protect people and the environment. There have also been delays because we were short on staff."
Ecology officials said they have committed additional resources to the waterfront over the past two years. An experienced project manager from Ecology has spurred progress on some of the work.
"We have completed five partial cleanups, and 11 of the 12 cleanups are scheduled to be completed by 2016," Terpening said.
The toxics control fund has been vulnerable in recent years to raids by the Legislature in order to balance the state budget. Lawmakers have taken $233 million out of the fund since 2009, Ericksen said. There's a chance they'll take more money out this year, as the state faces another shortfall.
Revenue for the toxics fund comes from nearly $200 million a year in taxes on hazardous materials, including fuel.
Ericksen's bill would create a new account within the toxics fund for approved, "shovel-ready" projects, he said. About $100 million currently in the toxics fund would be put into this account so that money can't be raided.
"It would drive the money out the door for projects that are ready to go this year," Ericksen said.
Port Environmental Director Mike Stoner said there were three such projects on the waterfront - all stormwater improvements, at three different development areas: a marine-trades site on the central waterfront, and industrial and residential/retail areas at the old G-P site.
Money from the new fund also could be spent on a major stormwater project on Birch Bay, Ericksen said.
Ericksen's bill works in tandem with another piece of toxics legislation, sponsored by Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island. Ranker's bill also would accelerate cleanups and give local jurisdictions more control over projects.
The bills are well timed for Bellingham and the port, which are wrapping up planning on redevelopment of 237 acres on the waterfront. Along with commercial, industrial and residential areas, the new waterfront would have trails, parks and in a later phase, a new marina.