Mercury cleanup costs rise again on Bellingham waterfront

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 18, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - Port of Bellingham commissioners have agreed to spend another $1.2 million to pay for mercury cleanup on the old Georgia-Pacific Corp. waterfront site.

At the Tuesday, Dec. 17, commission meeting, port engineer John Hergesheimer said excavation of a concrete slab beneath a now-demolished mercury processing building had revealed more extensive contamination than expected.

The soil under the slab contains mercury globules "about the size of BBs," he said.

Because the heavy liquid metal tends to sink, some of the mercury is as much as 12 feet below the surface, and the tainted soils must be excavated, then mixed with cement and sulfur. That mixture is then packed in heavy plastic bags to solidify before it is trucked to a hazardous waste disposal site in Oregon.

"It is a very expensive operation," Hergesheimer said.

The mercury was used in cells that enabled G-P to produce elemental chlorine used in the paper-bleaching process from 1965 until 2000. Hergesheimer said there were concrete troughs inside the building meant to contain the mercury, but those troughs were cracked and some mercury escaped into the soil.

At the 12-foot depth, a layer of impermeable material appears to have kept the mercury out of groundwater, Hergesheimer added.

The commissioners authorized the addition of another $1.1 million in payments to cleanup contractor Strider Construction, bringing the company's total payments on the cleanup job to about $4.8 million.

They also authorized an addition of about $100,000 to the contract of Aspect Consulting, the company hired to oversee Strider's work to ensure compliance with environmental regulations. That payment brings Aspect's total payments to about $2.9 million, which includes Aspect's role in conducting the extensive studies required before Strider began cleanup excavations at the site.

Port Environmental Director Mike Stoner said the additional costs will be covered without a direct financial hit on the port. Washington Department of Ecology cleanup grants will cover half of the additional cost, and the port's insurance policy on cost overruns will cover the other half.

Hergesheimer said more excavation is still to be done at the site, and there is no guarantee against finding more toxic surprises.

"I would like to report to you that this will be the guaranteed end of this, but I cannot say that," he said. "You really don't know what you have until you dig in the dirt."

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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