BELLINGHAM - On Mother's Day, May 11, the crew at The Landings at Colony Wharf watched in frustration as a tug tried to nudge a big bargeload of gravel into their dock off C Street near the mouth of Whatcom Creek.
They had timed the operation to coincide with high tide, but the water still wasn't quite deep enough to get the barge up to the dock to unload the shipment for Whatcom County-based Cowden Gravel.
Rieker Sternhagen, one of the co-owners of Colony Wharf, said they had been expecting the 7,000-ton barge to draw about 15 feet, but it was closer to 17.
The episode demonstrates the difficulty of keeping shipping alive on the Bellingham waterfront, as Port of Bellingham officials deal with environmental and land use conflicts on limited stretches of industrial shoreline.
After the effort to get the big gravel barge into Colony Wharf was called off, the vessel had to be tied up in deeper water along the old Georgia-Pacific Corp. pier on the other side of the waterway. On Monday, May 12, a landing craft-type vessel operated by Brice Inc. was enlisted to ferry excavating equipment onto the gravel barge to remove some of its cargo and get the barge riding higher in the water. By Tuesday the lightened barge was moved to Colony Wharf to unload the rest of the cargo.
The improvised unloading strategy added about 25 percent to Cowden Gravel's cost of shipping the load down from a quarry in British Columbia, said Brent Cowden, the company's general manager and co-owner.
"We knew we were kind of close," Cowden said. "We cut it too close."
Relying on smaller barges would avoid potential water-depth problems, but that option is more costly, Cowden said. A gravel company bidding on a contract needs to shave costs wherever possible, he added.
Sternhagen said the episode shows the difficulty of operating a barge terminal at a site where the water depth is just 8 feet at low tide, and tide tables dictate the docking schedules for larger cargoes. Sternhagen is confident that if the channel could be deepened, barge traffic would increase. That would generate jobs, revenue for the port and for Colony Wharf, and revenue for fuel dealers when barge operators refill their vessels' massive fuel tanks here.
Colony Wharf leases Port of Bellingham property. A new long-term lease between the port and the company was approved May 6. Besides the barge terminal, Colony Wharf operates a boatyard with a crane for vessel haul-out, and provides space for a number of marine services companies. All told, more than 100 people are earning a living on the property, Sternhagen said.
Sternhagen and his partners contend that the port is missing a chance to add to that number. As they see it, the port should be using an upcoming environmental cleanup of the waterway to dredge contaminated sediment and make the water deeper at the barge terminal.
Mark Lake, Colony Wharf's yard manager and partner, fears that the port's cleanup plan will disrupt the small amount of barge traffic that is using the facility now. He is concerned that the port's plan will remove Colony Wharf's hydraulic barge unloading ramp, and interfere with continued use of a small stretch of beach that Brice Inc. uses to load equipment and cargo for shipment to Alaska.
"We're fighting for a way of life up here," Lake said. "There's good jobs out of this. We're not promising jobs. We have them. We're in jeopardy of losing them."
Mike Stoner, the port's environmental director, said the cleanup plans for the waterway - tainted with mercury and other pollutants from years of G-P pulp and paper operations - are in their final stages of regulatory approval after years of study and review. Changing those plans now, to increase water depth for shipping, would delay the cleanup for years and add as much as $10 million in cost.
Stoner contends that the Colony Wharf site will accommodate existing levels of barge traffic after the cleanup is complete.
"It has been a small-barge terminal in the past and it will be a small-barge terminal in the future," Stoner said.
The cleanup activity will deepen the water a bit, in the area closer to the creek mouth where Colony Wharf has been hauling out vessels for servicing, Stoner said. The water depth at the barge terminal will stay at about 8 feet at low tide.
Stoner acknowledged that the existing hydraulic barge ramp will be removed as part of the cleanup. Temporary ramps can be put in place to service small barges until a permanent new ramp can be installed, Stoner said, and Brice likely will be able to continue to use the beach area for loading.
For more than a year, Port Commissioner Mike McAuley has been the only person at the port who has challenged the wisdom of the cleanup plan that is now in the final approval phase from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"I don't think they (other port officials) vetted the plan properly with local industries,' McAuley said. "I don't think the port planned properly to support local industry."
McAuley doesn't buy the argument that the existing cleanup plan is a done deal, since it has yet to receive final regulatory approval. If changing the plan to improve the barge terminal delays the process by a couple of years, McAuley said he has no problem with that.
"We must redesign this plan so that we have more water depth," McAuley said.
He noted that it is by no means clear how soon the cleanup project will get the final permit approval it needs from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Corps spokeswoman Patricia Graesser said she could not provide an estimate of how soon an approval might be issued, because Lummi Nation has raised treaty fishing rights issues that must be resolved before the Corps will act.
"The Lummi Nation has stated concerns about fishing areas and about the cleanup standard identified," Graesser said in an email. "The Corps considers concerns regarding treaty rights as part of our trust responsibility. As long as discussions continue, the process continues. The Corps has not set a deadline for resolution."
Lummi Nation did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Port Commissioner Dan Robbins said he was at Colony Wharf on Mother's Day, watching the failed docking attempt.
"My question was, my God, why did they load it that heavy when they know what the depth is?" Robbins said.
As Robbins sees it, delaying the project for years and spending added millions to deepen the barge terminal area would make little sense.
"The question you really have to ask is, do you spend that kind of money for an infrequent use?" Robbins said. "Build it and they will come? What if they don't come?"
The port will work with Cowden Gravel and other affected companies to explore options for meeting their shipping needs, Robbins said. He suggested that ways could be found to unload barges on port-owned property on the other side of the waterway, where water is deeper.
"We haven't looked at all the possibilities," Robbins said. "We'll work with Cowden Gravel. We want the jobs."