Doubts linger about Cornwall landfill cleanup on Bellingham waterfront

BELLINGHAM - State and Port of Bellingham officials say final cleanup of the Cornwall Avenue landfill will make the site safe for public use, but concerns linger about an earlier decision to dump Squalicum Harbor dredge spoils there.

The 13-acre city-owned property beyond the south end of Cornwall Avenue is envisioned as part of a new waterfront park that will feature an over-the-water walkway to Boulevard Park. In the past, the site was home to a sawmill. From 1953 to 1965, it was a city dump.

Wendy Steffensen, lead scientist at RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, says options for cleanup of the site are now limited because the Washington Department of Ecology already approved the deposit of 47,000 cubic yards of dredged material from the port's Squalicum Harbor on top of trash buried in the old dump.

Steffensen contends the best option might have been the excavation and safe disposal of the old dump debris, although she acknowledges that would have been costly. But now, with an additional heap of contaminated dredged material atop the old dump, she doesn't think there is much chance the dump debris will ever be removed from the edge of Bellingham Bay.

"It (the dredge dumping) was predisposing the solution to that cleanup site," Steffensen said. "It was essentially making it a foregone conclusion that this would be capped."

As Steffensen sees it, the most likely and least-costly option for final cleanup will be the deposit of an additional two or three feet of clean material on top of the contaminated dredging deposit, and the even-more-contaminated stuff in the old dump. It's a common cleanup strategy for contaminated soil known as "capping."

But she questions whether the least-costly option is best.

"All of this material is still on our shoreline," Steffensen said. "It is still exposed to storm erosion."

For now, the dredged material is underneath a heavy sheet of white plastic that is visible to passers-by on the South Bay Trail above. At recent Bellingham Planning and Development Commission hearings about waterfront redevelopment plans, several people expressed concern about whether the dredged material is dangerous to the environment or to humans.

Port Environmental Director Mike Stoner and Lucy McInerney, Ecology's project manager for bay cleanup, acknowledge that the dredged sediment contains low levels of dioxin, a dangerous carcinogen. But they also say the material is safely contained now, and the site will be safe for public use once the final cleanup strategy is in place in the next couple of years.

McInerney also denied that the final cleanup solution is a foregone conclusion. She acknowledged that capping is a likely choice, but said other options will get study. A range of options will be presented to the public for review and comment later this year, before a decision is made.

The law requires a final cleanup that eliminates environmental exposure to dangerous contaminants, McInerney said, and that is what will happen at the Cornwall landfill. Once the cleanup is complete, the site will be safe for all public uses, including a park.

"Those surface soils will be clean," McInerney said. "I want to assure you that we are very much paying attention to it."

If the final cleanup strategy does mean contaminated material is buried rather than removed, McInerney said the site will receive regular monitoring to make sure the contaminants remain safely entombed. Legal restrictions also would be in place to prevent anyone from digging down into the contaminated material.

The port's Stoner noted that much of the public concern has focused on the dioxin in the dredged material. While dioxin can be highly dangerous, he said its chemical characteristics make it relatively easy to contain. Dioxin isn't prone to evaporate into the air or leach into groundwater, and if it is buried out of reach of human contact, it won't hurt anyone.

"Placing a clean-soil cap over the base cap is a safe, proven, effective way to break that exposure pathway," Stoner said in an email.

Steffensen acknowledged that the emerging strategy of burying the contaminants is probably a lower-cost approach, one that saves public money that can be used on cleanup projects elsewhere. But she contended there should have been more public discussion about how cleanup money is being allocated around the bay.

"What we got was a cheap fix," Steffensen said. "It's not going to be the end of the world, but it wasn't the best solution for the environment. I understand the dilemma. It doesn't make it right. Maybe under the circumstances it's the best that could be done."

The 13-acre property beyond the south end of Cornwall Avenue is owned by the city of Bellingham. This story was corrected April 10.


Summer 2013: Draft of Cornwall Landfill cleanup options released for public comment.

Late 2013: Cleanup plan determined.

2014: Permanent cleanup work begins.

Read more: Department of Ecology webpage on Cornwall Ave. site.