BELLINGHAM - Environmental cleanup excavations are turning up more mercury than expected in a small area of the old Georgia-Pacific Corp. mill site, and that could add as much as $1.4 million to the project's cost.
Brian Gouran, environmental site manager for the Port of Bellingham, said the discovery of additional high mercury concentrations means more tainted soil will have to be stabilized with cement and sulfur for packaging before shipment by truck to an approved landfill in Oregon.
That is expensive, but Gouran said the port has state grant money as well as its own environmental insurance policy to provide the additional cash.
At their Tuesday, April 16, meeting, port commissioners agreed to provide an additional $630,000 to Strider Construction Co. of Bellingham to process and dispose of the additional soil already discovered. They also authorized the spending of an additional $790,000 on Strider's cleanup work, if necessary.
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Gouran said he sought the additional $790,000 spending authorization at the April 16 meeting because port commissioners won't meet for another three weeks, and he wanted to be able to pay the Strider crew to keep working if the amount of mercury disposal continues to exceed preliminary estimates. If that turns out not to be the case, that money need not be spent.
If all the additional money is needed, the cost of the current cleanup project would rise from the original contract amount of $1.8 million to about $3.2 million.
Gouran said the higher-than-expected mercury levels are being found during cleanup excavation at a very small portion of the old G-P site where mercury was used and recovered during the pulp production process. He said the area is about the size of two or three parking spaces. There is no reason to think there will be significantly higher levels of mercury over a wide area of the 137 acres that G-P turned over to the port in 2005, Gouran said.
"The scope hasn't changed dramatically," Gouran said. "It was a very small volume to start with."
Brian Sato, Washington Department of Ecology site manager, said he wasn't surprised that the excavation turned up more mercury than estimated. He said estimates are based on test drilling samples that he compared to a game of "Battleship." It is not unusual to find something that the test drilling missed, once actual excavation begins, Sato added.
"It's not until we peel the asphalt back and start digging that you get to see the real thing," Sato said.
The work now underway on the most-contaminated portion of the old mill complex is a small first phase of a site-wide cleanup plan that may cost $100 million.
Sato said he was pleased that the toxic mercury is being removed after years of planning.
"I'm excited and enthusiastic about getting this stuff out of here," Sato said.