Bellingham's newest waterfront park is open. Here's why officials think it is safe

After years of cleanup and preparation on Bellingham's downtown waterfront, the city is nearly ready to officially open its newest park.

The beach portion of Waypoint Park opened to the public in late June but finishing touches are still being made on a playground, said Gina Austin, project engineer for the City of Bellingham. The completion of the playground is weather dependent; it needs a few days of dry weather to make sure the playground surface cures properly, she said.

The park is also home to Waypoint, a former industrial acid ball tank turned to sculpture, as well as walking and cycling trails to other parts of the waterfront district. The park is adjacent to the renovated Granary Building, which is currently available for lease. Plans are in the works for a formal celebration later this summer.

Parking on the property isn't ready yet, so Austin is encouraging people to walk, bike or take the bus to the park. Parking currently is only available outside the property on nearby downtown streets.

The opening of the park is the first step in bringing the public back to what has been an industrial site for decades, mostly operated by Georgia-Pacific.

Over the past five years, more than $6 million has been spent cleaning up 31 acres on the northern half of the Waterfront District, said Mike Hogan, a spokesman for the Port of Bellingham.

Construction of the 2-acre Waypoint Park and work on the central pier altogether cost $3.5 million and was led by the city.

Allie Pasquier walks her dog Otto past the “acid ball” at Waypoint Park in Bellingham. Evan Abell evan.abell@bellinghamherald.com

How were the 31 acres, including the park, cleaned up?

In 2013, local and state officials settled on a strategy to split the 74-acre property nearly in half, focusing on cleaning up the less-complicated northern property first. With the northern property capped and the cleanup completed in 2016, redevelopment of that area was allowed to move forward, Hogan said.

The northern portion of the property was home of Georgia Pacific's pulp mill and oil storage. Contaminated soil found in small areas of the property had to be removed and replaced, said Steve Germiat, principal hydrogeologist for Aspect Consulting. He's worked on the environmental cleanup of the property since 2008.

"It's is nice to see this property repurposed in this way," Germiat said.

Crews demolished buildings, removed the contaminated soil and debris, and installed a geotextile fabric and several feet of clean soil and gravel, Hogan said.

The cleanup process is explained in detail in a blog post on Aspect Consulting's website.

Bellingham Parks and Recreation employees Russ Isaly, right, and Josh Neyman measure the square footage of the playground surface at Waypoint Park in Bellingham. Evan Abell evan.abell@bellinghamherald.com

Is the park safe?

Germiat said the cleanup was done with the idea that people, especially children, would be living and playing in the area. The Washington State Department of Ecology supervised the cleanup planning and work, and the property will be inspected every year to make sure the cap remains intact.

One reason officials are confident about the safety of the park is the amount of clean material that's been added.

Ty Keltner, communications manager at Ecology's Bellingham office, noted that the beach is covered with at least three feet of sand and gravel before the city added another two feet while developing the park. Other material, including pavement, has been or will be added on other parts of the property.

"As a result, people and wildlife cannot be exposed to the buried contaminated soil and sediment," Keltner said.

Emily Koch, left, and Tim Lankhaar walk together at Waypoint Park in Bellingham. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

What about the waterway?

Phase one of the cleanup plan for Whatcom Waterway — the channel between Whatcom Creek and Bellingham Bay — was completed in 2016 and included the removal of 10,000 tons of contaminated soil, 5,100 tons of concrete and asphalt and 265 tons of creosote-treated timber, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Cleanup work on the waterway was generally free of difficulties, Keltner said, though they found more creosote-treated wood than they expected..

About 100,000 cubic yards of clean material was placed in the waterway area where the contaminated material was removed. About 36,000 square feet of sheet pile walls were added to prevent groundwater from entering the waterway.

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The "acid ball" reflects red light during twilight at Waypoint Park in Bellingham. Evan Abell evan.abell@bellinghamherald.com

What's next for south portion of property?

Cleanup of the south portion is trickier because it contains mercury contamination from Georgia-Pacific's former chemical plant.

Mercury is a more volatile metal, making it harder to contain, Germiat said.

Currently, the Port of Bellingham is overseeing some interim cleanup work and consulting with Ecology on a final cleanup plan, Hogan said. That will include more extensive removal of contaminated soil compared to the northern part of the property. Cleanup work is expected to take several years.

Keltner said Ecology plans on selecting a cleanup option in early 2019 and will ask for public comment of the selected cleanup option.

Dave Gallagher: 360-715-2269, @BhamHeraldBiz