State Department of Ecology monitors plans, cleanup on Bellingham's waterfront


Cornwall Avenue Landfill

Pacific Northwest Probe & Drilling worker Jon Root hauls a cover for a monitoring well at the old Cornwall Avenue landfill along Bellingham Bay July 17, 2012. Behind Root is 47,000 cubic yards of fill material that was dredged from the Squalicum Harbor marina and is covered with a waterproof tarp.


Decades of heavy industrial use took a toll on the Bellingham waterfront. The Washington Department of Ecology is working closely with the city, port and community to ensure the sites contaminated by past industries are cleaned up to protect people, plants and animals.

Ecology oversees the cleanup work done by the port, city and others. Right now, I'm involved with six hazardous waste cleanup sites within the Waterfront District planning area. There seems to have been some confusion recently about how the cleanup process works, and whether or not cleaned-up properties - especially the Cornwall Avenue Landfill site - will truly be safe for people.

As a state agency, our role is to oversee the cleanup work happening on the waterfront. And our mandate under state law is to eliminate threats to people, plants and animals from harmful levels of historic contamination. A key element of the cleanup process is determining how they could be exposed now and in the future.

There are a number of ways people, plants and animals could potentially be exposed to contamination. One way is people coming into direct contact with the soil. For this exposure, state law has two possible cleanup levels. One is based on unrestricted use of the property, meaning that the property can be used for any purpose. The other cleanup level is based on industrial land uses, meaning that the property can only be used for industrial purposes.

The port and city plan to use Waterfront District property in a variety of ways, including residential, commercial, parks and light industry. Based on these land uses, we will use unrestricted land-use soil cleanup level to address the direct-contact exposure pathway. It's the more stringent level under state law.

Before figuring out how to clean up the site, we need to know the nature and extent of contamination. We collect and analyze samples from the site and compare the results to protective cleanup levels. This determines what needs to be cleaned up to protect people, plants and animals.

To determine how to clean up, methods are identified and evaluated, then assembled into a range of potential options. Cleanup methods include treatment to destroy or detoxify contamination, removal or containment. The containment option leaves contamination in place, but isolates it from people, plant and animals.

A deed restriction must be placed on the property to ensure the containment system is maintained and cleanup requirements are met over the long term. A cost-benefit analysis of the cleanup options helps lead to a preferred option. A document called a remedial investigation and feasibility study describes what will be cleaned up and how it will be done.

The public reviews and comments on this report, and then we develop a plan describing our selected cleanup action for the site. Following public review of this plan, the cleanup moves into design and permitting, and finally to construction.

In 2011, the port dredged 47,000 cubic yards of material from the Squalicum Marina improvement project and placed it on part of the Cornwall Avenue Landfill cleanup site. The port took this interim action with Ecology oversight. We approved this work because it helps reduce the amount of rainwater flowing through municipal waste and carrying contaminants into the bay. And we anticipate that the final site-wide cleanup will call for containing the municipal landfill contaminants.

The dredged material contains levels of dioxins and furans (toxic organic compounds) above unrestricted land-use, direct-contact soil cleanup levels. But direct contact isn't possible because the material is covered with a thick, white, waterproof membrane. If the material becomes part of the final site-wide cleanup, it would be permanently isolated to prevent direct contact.

This summer, we expect to ask the public to review and comment on a draft remedial investigation and feasibility study report for the Cornwall Avenue Landfill site.

Since 2011, we've completed three interim actions projects and have two more underway within the Waterfront District. We're making great strides to eliminate exposure to harmful levels of historic contamination. There's still a lot more work to do in the coming years. We'll continue working diligently with the city, port and community to make sure cleanup work protects people, plants and animals now and in the future.


Lucy McInerney, an environmental engineer, leads the Department of Ecology team overseeing cleanups in Bellingham. She personally manages two cleanup sites within the Waterfront District planning area. Learn more about Ecology's cleanup activities and opportunities to comment online at

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