Whatcom jail planners exploring environmental risks, other uncertainties

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJune 10, 2013 

Significant uncertainties remain as Whatcom County officials begin a study of the environmental impacts of a new jail in an industrial and residential neighborhood in Ferndale.

Officials have some concern about one or more landfills on properties near the 40-acre jail site, which is at the northwest corner of LaBounty Drive and Sunset Avenue.

Also, many of the dozens of comments submitted last month about the scope of the study said the proposed jail was too large and expensive. Officials were unclear during a presentation to the Whatcom County Council on Tuesday, June 4, just how big the jail might be.

Property southwest of the jail site was used in the 1970s and '80s as a garbage incineration-energy recovery operation run by Thermal Reduction Co., according to a May 1, 1985, state Department of Ecology memo.

The company dumped waste ash into a pit on the south side of what is now the Friese Hide and Tallow Co. access road. The pit has since been capped and paved over.

The company stored hazardous waste separately in a pit north of the access road, on two acres next to the jail site. That pit was in use from 1976 to 1979, the memo said.

The current property owner gave county officials a "no further action" letter, dated April 25, 2003, from the Environmental Protection Agency indicating the Superfund investigation of the hazardous waste site was completed.

Confusion appears to linger over the nearby landfills, however. When quizzed about them at Tuesday's meeting, Bill Valdez of the DLR Group, hired by the county as a consultant, said an ash pit was located on the northern property, where the hazardous waste pit sits.

"It was properly capped," Valdez said, based on information provided by the property owner.

Documents tell a different story. The hazardous waste pit on that property was used to dispose of "demolition asbestos, pesticides and waste catalyst from Mobil Oil Co.," the 1985 memo said. It doesn't say it's an ash pit. The hazardous waste was capped with "fairly impermeable" soil, according to a Feb. 25, 1980, memo from the EPA.

County Executive Jack Louws said the upcoming environmental study would verify claims made by the current property owner. He said he wants to sample the groundwater to confirm that the old landfill isn't contaminating the jail site.

The most frequent concern expressed in public comments was that the jail, reportedly to house 660 beds, would be too big for the county's needs. Some commenters said money spent on jail capacity would be better spent on services for offenders.

"The new jail must provide a well developed and well staffed mental health and addiction program," Arlene Feld wrote in a May 16 email to the county. "This is important enough to trade some beds for it."

Louws said the oft-quoted 660 beds is one of a number of scenarios. He evaded a final figure in his comments on jail size at Tuesday's meeting.

Currently, the combined capacity at the courthouse jail and the interim work center is 390. The facilities have held as many as 474 inmates, Louws said.

We need "550 to 600 beds to optimally run our system," he said. "What we're proposing is a facility that's somewhere between 540 and 575 ... with the capacity to add about 100 beds within the current footprint."

"That 550- to 650-bed facility that we're designing now, if we do things right, we may be able to increase our (county) population by 50,000 people and keep the (bed) number the same," Louws added.

The executive suggested any definitive planning on the size of the jail was a crapshoot, given the unpredictability of changes in criminal law, sentencing guidelines and other social variables.

"The jail size issue and the programming issues that we have with this facility ... for the next 20 to 25 years is virtually impossible to comprehend," Louws told the council.

Council members will get more information in July, including cost estimates.

The environmental impact study should be completed in late July or early August, said county planning manager Tyler Schroeder. The consultant, DLR Group, will release its final report in September.

The county has until December to buy the property, or it could go back on the market. Barring delays, the jail will open in 2017.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2298.

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