BELLINGHAM - The four candidates vying for two seats on the Port of Bellingham commission all pledged their allegiance to job creation and thorough waterfront cleanup at a Wednesday, Sept. 25, City Club forum.
The port election is non-partisan, although Whatcom County Democrats have endorsed incumbent commissioner Mike McAuley and District 1 candidate Renata Kowalczyk, while Republicans have endorsed Ken Bell, campaigning to unseat McAuley, and Dan Robbins, who is competing with Kowalczyk for the District 2 seat being vacated by Scott Walker. Both positions will be on all county ballots.
Both McAuley and rival Bell stressed the importance of industrial jobs on the waterfront.
McAuley said he had pushed successfully to keep a larger tract of industrial land in the area near the port's shipping terminal.
"I did take a shot from some of my environmentalist friends," McAuley said. "The first job of the port is still working in support of our economy."
Bell stressed the importance of cooperating with city and Whatcom County officials to attract industries that offer better-paying jobs, while also making sure that the environmental cleanup of the site is thorough enough to allow redevelopment.
Robbins said he thought waterfront redevelopment plans now getting city review are on the right track. He hopes that disagreements over details like trail routes or street design do not bog down the process.
"We have to look at it as an industrial site first," Robbins said.
Kowalczyk said she too wanted to support marine-related industries as the waterfront redevelops.
The four also discussed plans for the cleanup of the toxic remnants of decades of industrial activity on the waterfront.
McAuley said the cleanup plans are limited to some extent by cost.
"I believe that this community would like a $10 cleanup, but we only have $8," McAuley said. "Right now we don't have enough money to do everything people want to do, which is a terrible shame."
McAuley pledged to seek additional funding to do cleanup work that goes beyond current plans to cover or cap some tainted soil in place, rather than excavate it for shipment to disposal sites.
Bell said he too was skeptical about capping. He expressed fear that capped land won't be suitable for industry, and will have to be used as park land. He suggested that Georgia-Pacific Corp. "or maybe others" could still contribute to cleanup costs.
G-P formerly operated a pulp and paper mill on a large portion of the waterfront. The company sold its real estate to the port for $1 in 2005, with the understanding that the port would shoulder cleanup costs. G-P also contributed $2.5 million to provide the port with an insurance policy to cover cleanup cost overruns.
Kowalczyk said she would advocate for cleanup that allows unrestricted use of waterfront land, not just industrial use.
At this point, the port is already committed to a cleanup strategy thorough enough to meet environmental standards that will enable unrestricted use once cleanup is complete. That means everything from new industries to residences and parks. The strategy calls for removal of the most-contaminated soils while covering other areas with several feet of clean material.
Robbins said he was willing to defer to the expertise of state and local officials in determining what level of cleanup is needed. He also observed that some people may be expecting too much.
"One lady told me she wanted the dirt down at the G-P site to be clean enough for her children to eat," Robbins said. "I'm not sure how clean that would have to be."
On the issue of port accountability to citizens, all the candidates said they would be willing to consider evening commission meetings, instead of the 3 p.m. weekday sessions that have been the rule for years. They also said they were open to a new move to expand the port commission to five members from its current three - a proposal that county voters narrowly rejected in November 2012.