Bellingham marina dredging, waterfront cleanup under way

BELLINGHAM - A long-abandoned waterfront garbage dump is getting some environmental attention as part of a $7.5 million project that includes dredging and moorage upgrades inside Squalicum Harbor.

"In the 1950s and '60s they just dumped garbage into the bay," said Brian Gouran, environmental project manager at the Port of Bellingham, as he stood on the cracked, weed-studded asphalt off the south end of Cornwall Avenue. "All this land underneath us is garbage."

While the long-desolate site won't get its complete makeover for years, port and city planners envision eventual transformation of much of the site into a waterfront park that could be linked to Boulevard Park with an over-water walkway.

On Friday, Dec. 23, that was still hard to imagine. Excavators have built a dirt berm around the margins of the site to reduce runoff into Bellingham Bay as work continues on an interim environmental cleanup project designed to reduce the leaching of contaminants from the half-century-old garbage deposits into the water.

To the west, on the far side of Squalicum Harbor off Gate 3, a dredge crew scoops up muck and deposits it in a barge as part of a marina maintenance project that included removal of old wooden pilings coated with toxic creosote. The old pilings will be replaced with concrete pilings and floats.

The muck is being taken to the old Georgia-Pacific West Inc. pulp mill site, where it will dry out before it is mixed with a small quantity of cement, Gouran said. Then it will be spread over the 3.5-acre Cornwall dump site, where it will be covered with plastic sheeting to help keep rainwater from seeping down into the buried garbage and out into the bay.

The work at the dump site also includes a system to safely control methane that is produced by buried garbage.

About $1.5 million of the project cost is the environmental cleanup. State grants will cover half of that, using money from a tax on petroleum and other potential pollutants entering the state.

The cost of the marina work will be recovered from boat owners' moorage fees, Gouran said.

Dutra Construction Co. of San Rafael, Calif., is doing the work, which involves about 50 jobs.

Gouran stressed that this capping with dredged material is only an interim step to contain environmental problems at the landfill. A plan for a permanent cleanup will take at least another year to develop. That plan will have to be approved by the Washington Department of Ecology, which is also overseeing the work now under way.

Bob Swackhamer, site manager for the Department of Ecology, said the agencies involved have done thorough testing of the dredged material to make sure the interim cleanup project is safe for people and the environment.

"There's been a lot of thought put into it," Swackhamer said. "We have analyzed the concentrations, and we're confident that what we are doing is safe, and is an improvement in safety over what the current situation is."

The cleanup work now under way is the culmination of years of scientific analysis and engineering, he added.

"We're glad to see things move from the paperwork phase," Swackhamer said.