Public's turn to weigh in on plan for Whatcom jail in Ferndale

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 13, 2013 

Public commenting has begun on a 186-page environmental review of a new Whatcom County jail and sheriff's office proposed on 40 acres of vacant industrial land in Ferndale.

The study, released to the public Friday, Sept. 13, raises questions about whether underground pollution remains at two contaminated sites near the jail property.

Pollution risks remain unclear at an old hazardous-waste landfill, which was capped and left in place, and at the site of leaking underground fuel tanks, which were removed in 1996, the study said. Both contaminated areas are on properties adjacent to the jail site.

No documents could be found to verify that cleanup was completed at the fuel-tank site. While the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a letter saying "no further action" was needed at the landfill, a similar statement from the state Department of Ecology was not confirmed.

Soil and groundwater samples taken this summer at the jail site showed no heavy metals, oils or other pollutants that would be expected from the nearby sites. The study concluded that groundwater from the contaminated sites flowed away from the jail property at the northwest corner of LaBounty Drive and Sunset Avenue.

Federal and state laws hold current owners liable for contamination on their properties, even if they didn't cause it. The Port of Bellingham, for example, is paying for cleanup at the site of the former Georgia-Pacific pulp mill on Bellingham's waterfront.

County Executive Jack Louws wanted to know what contaminants, if any, had migrated to the jail site before the County Council decides whether to purchase it.

"I will recommend to council that I believe we have completed everything reasonably possible ... to determine (a) clean bill of health" for the property, Louws said Friday, Sept. 13, in an email to The Bellingham Herald.

The executive was not concerned about incomplete records about the contaminated sites.

"This is not applicable to the property we are purchasing," he wrote.

The latest environmental review is only a draft, and the public has 30 days to comment on contamination, the unavoidable destruction of 3.1 acres of wetlands, the increased glare, and other reported impacts of the proposed jail. The final review is scheduled to be released in November.

The draft proposes three options: two different building configurations on the Ferndale property, and a "no action" alternative in which the county continues to use the jail at the Courthouse and the work center on Division Street.

The preferred option puts the sheriff's quarters closest to the entrances on LaBounty Drive. The jail would be to the west, partially obscured from LaBounty by the slope of the property. The proposal includes a third building, an 18,000-square-foot warehouse.

The jail would be 150,661 square feet; the sheriff's office is proposed to be 32,000 square feet.

The review concluded that the county will need 521 inmate beds immediately, and possibly 128 more by 2026. A longer-term projection calls for 140 more beds, putting the total close to 800, if that part were built. The third phase would require a new environmental review.

The existing jail facilities in Bellingham have a capacity of 390. People being held on lesser charges often are released because of space constraints.

JAIL TIMELINE

-- Sept. 13 to Oct. 14, 2013: Written comments accepted for draft supplemental environmental impact statement. Email newjail@whatcomcounty.us or mail Michael Russell, Whatcom County Facilities Management, 316 Lottie St., Bellingham, WA 98225.

-- Sept. 26, 2013: Public comment meeting, 6 p.m., Ferndale City Council chambers, 5694 Second Ave.

-- November: Final supplemental environmental impact statement.

-- December: Decision on site purchase.

-- Spring 2014: County applies for permits.

-- 2017: Tentative opening of new jail.

MORE INFORMATION

For a copy of the supplemental environmental impact statement and more information, go to whatcomcounty.us/jailsiting.

Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2298.

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