Whatcom council may buy office building, parking lot on toxic soil

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 21, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - The Whatcom County Council will be asked to decide on Tuesday, April 22, whether to purchase a State Street office building and a nearby parking lot, both of which sit over contaminated soil or groundwater.

County Executive Jack Louws said on Thursday, April 17, he would ask the council for a decision on the properties at its next meeting.

Samples taken late last year and again in January on the building property, 1500 N. State St., contained excessive amounts of gasoline and naphthalene, a hazardous chemical produced by burning oil. The property was the site of a gas station or auto repair shop from 1930 to 1985. Samples taken in shallow soil under the parking lot at 211 Champion St. had unhealthy levels of cancer-causing poly-aromatic hydrocarbons, which are found in oil deposits. The parking lot was formerly a railroad depot.

The study conducted in January by Stratum Group concluded the properties could continue in their current uses without risk.

"However, future excavations at the site could cause soil and groundwater contacts that would pose a risk to human health or the environment," the study said.

The county currently rents about 80 percent of the space in the building, owned by county Medical Examiner Gary Goldfogel, for health department offices, the medical examiner's office and the morgue. Goldfogel's business, Avocet Environmental Testing, is also in the building.

Goldfogel and the county had tentatively agreed to a $2.6 million price on both properties, which include the 22,157-square-foot building and 120 parking spaces total. An appraisal of the properties valued them at $3.557 million, Louws has said.

The council meets 7 p.m. Tuesday at the county courthouse, 311 Grand Ave.

Council was poised to give its approval in December, when a routine check of the soil at the building and parking-lot properties revealed hazardous chemicals. The county and the medical examiner agreed to postpone a decision on the purchase until the extent of the hazard was better understood.

The executive said the State Street building, if purchased, would consolidate the permit centers for the county health, public works and planning departments. The building would need renovations costing between $1.2 million and $2.3 million. The county would vacate the Northwest Annex, a former hospital at 5280 Northwest Ave. that is ill suited for offices, Louws has said.

Reach Ralph Schwartz at 360-715-2289 or ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Politics blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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