Port of Bellingham director challenges mayor's waterfront remarks

BELLINGHAM - Mayor Dan Pike's critical comments about the Port of Bellingham's progress on waterfront cleanup have drawn a sharp response from Port Executive Director Charlie Sheldon.

At a Sept. 29 candidates forum sponsored by the League of Women voters, Pike suggested that Port Environmental Director Mike Stoner was somehow responsible for the slow pace of cleanup work.

Pike observed that Stoner assumed his job in 1994.

"I was told by a former port employee that at that time the cleanup was two years out and it's been two years out ever since," Pike said.

Pike also suggested that the slow pace of the cleanup was slowing down the entire waterfront renewal process.

After he watched the online video of the forum, Sheldon sent an email response to Pike, with copies to port commissioners, defending Stoner as well as the port's overall performance on the waterfront.

"Mike is held in high regard throughout the state for his knowledge of and work in cleanup projects," the email said. "Mike has worked tirelessly on gaining funding and on continuing to keep the State Department of Ecology's regulators focused on approval of our community's cleanup projects."

Sheldon's email also suggested that the pace of progress on the city master plan for the waterfront is a factor in holding back the cleanup.

"Ecology tells us again and again that land use decisions must precede cleanup decisions," Sheldon's email said. "They need to know how the site will be used in order to define a safe remedy. In the case of the waterfront, the master plan should have been completed years ago. Completion of the master plan is not dependent on cleanup."

In followup interviews, both Pike and Sheldon noted that while delays in cleanup and master planning have been frustrating, the years of effort will soon bear fruit. A draft master plan could be ready for initial review by the city's Planning Commission before the end of the year, and cleanup work is also ready to begin in the next few weeks.

Once the master plan gets final approval from port and city, the effort to recruit developers and generate economic activity can begin in earnest, Sheldon said.

"I want to see jobs down there on that site," he said.

Pike said he stands by his comments at the forum, and he rejected any suggestion that he bears responsibility for delays in completing the master plan.

But Pike did acknowledge that when he took office in 2008, he confronted the port over planning issues because port officials' vision did not match the community's.

"They had adopted an approach that was basically building Bellevue on the bay," Pike said. "Things changed. It took time. ... Overall I'm very comfortable with how I've handled things."

Lucy McInerney, the Department of Ecology environmental engineer who oversees much of the local cleanup work, said the many years of waiting for environmental cleanup were mostly inevitable. As she described it, there is no quick way to investigate the contamination of a huge industrial site, develop a cleanup strategy, and get the approval of multiple state and federal agencies and tribal governments.

"Each site is like doing a Ph.D dissertation," McInerney said. "Every site has its own unique set of circumstances."

Given the complexity of the site - with its mercury-tainted pulp mill and chlorine plant site, plus an old city landfill - progress toward cleanup is moving as well as can be expected, McInerney said.

The good news is that actual cleanup work will begin before the end of the year, with millions in port funds and state Model Toxics Control Act money already in place to pay for the work slated to be done between now and mid-2013.

After that, McInerney said, the port and city will need to work together to make the case for additional state cleanup money, which comes from a voter-mandated tax on petroleum and other pollutants entering the state.