Officials planning a new Whatcom County jail are still gathering information, but so far the Ferndale location has passed muster.
An analysis of the soils on the 40-acre property at the corner of LaBounty Drive and Sunset Avenue revealed no environmental hazards, no archaeological findings, and a thick layer of clay just under the surface that is good for laying a foundation for a large building.
Tests showed no contamination in soil samples taken at two locations: near an old hazardous-waste landfill on an adjacent property, and where underground fuel tanks were kept on the west end of the proposed jail site. Bill Valdez of jail consultant DLR Group was definitive as he reported this to the Whatcom County Council on Tuesday, Aug. 6.
"There isn't any leaching from those potentially contaminated areas, and there are no contaminants on the site the county is looking at purchasing," he said.
Sheriff Bill Elfo and county Executive Jack Louws both were pleased with the results.
"At this point there's no significant obstacles to that site," Elfo said.
Both also emphasized the investigation wasn't finished. A draft of a required report of the jail's environmental impacts is due in September. The rest of the story about potential obstacles will be in that document.
"We have some work to do to get to that point, but we're on schedule and there have been no showstoppers at this point," Louws said.
The county has an option to purchase the property that must be exercised by December.
The consultant's presentation included an analysis of pressures that could move demand for jail beds up or down. With so many factors in play at the same time, it's hard to come to solid conclusions, Valdez said. For example, when the blood-alcohol limit for driving under the influence was reduced from 0.10 to 0.08, the jail population in Whatcom County went down the following year, Valdez said.
The consultant recommended 521 inmate beds, with capacity to expand to 649 in the next 25 years.
"I think we've got a fairly good consensus this is the appropriate number of beds based on the data we have," Elfo said.
The jail at the courthouse and a work center on Division Street have housed as many as 470 people. Overcrowding and concerns for the safety of inmates and jail deputies have motivated plans for a new jail.