Port says waterfront development plans will be safe

A view of the Bellingham waterfront with the Granary Building on the left.
A view of the Bellingham waterfront with the Granary Building on the left. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - Port of Bellingham and city staffers have assured the city's Planning and Development Commission that waterfront cleanup and building plans will be safe, and the Washington Department of Ecology will be checking those plans to make sure.

At their Thursday, April 11, meeting, planning commissioners got a briefing on plans to deal with the legacy of industrial toxins in the soil and water, and on plans to deal with earthquake hazards and sea level rise.

Ecology cleanup site manager Mark Adams said environmental cleanup plans for 237 waterfront acres won't be completed or executed until his agency approves.

"Frankly, we're not going to allow any cleanups that are not fully protective, in our view," Adams said, adding that once that work is done, the land will be safe for use.

"You can put in a day care center," Adams said. "You can put in an industrial facility. You can put up a house."

Adams noted that some people have criticized the deposit of Squalicum Harbor dredge sediment atop the old city dump south of the end of Cornwall Avenue, as a temporary cleanup strategy. Although those sediments are themselves contaminated with low levels of carcinogenic dioxin, he defended the move as protective of the environment.

Capping the old landfill on the city-owned property with the dredge sediment helped to stop rainwater from filtering through the buried trash deposits and polluting the bay, he said. The dredge sediment has been covered with a tough plastic sheet that prevents the sediment from causing any additional damage, he said.

"Ecology views it as a very good thing that happened there," Adams said. "It's perfectly protective and doing a great job until the final cleanup happens."

Adams denied that putting the dredged material atop the old dump has made it significantly more difficult to dig up the old buried trash for disposal away from the water's edge. He contended that the dredge material is a tiny fraction of what is in the old dump, by volume.

While excavation and removal of dump debris has not yet been ruled out as a cleanup strategy, Adams and Port Environmental Director Mike Stoner agreed that there is not, and never was, much likelihood of that.

"It's very unusual to have Ecology dig up a landfill (dump) and move it to another place," Stoner said,

If the dump debris and marina dredge sediments do remain at the site, they will be covered with enough clean soil to make the site safe for use as a city park, as preliminary plans envision, Stoner said.

Tara Sundin, city economic development manager, noted that older city dumps have already been buried in place, including an old creekside trash deposit beneath Maritime Heritage Park, and another site beneath a big warehouse off Roeder Avenue, built by Georgia-Pacific Corp. before the pulp and paper company turned its land over to the port in 2005.

The Planning Commission also was briefed on how port and city planners expect to deal with earthquake hazards and sea level rise.

Stoner said the elevation of areas to be developed will be raised three to six feet, based on the latest research estimates on sea level rise between now and 2100.

City Public Works Director Ted Carlson noted that the higher elevations will make it easier to connect existing downtown streets to the waterfront.

On the earthquake issue, Brian Gouran, a geologist and environmental site project manager for the port, said planners are well aware that nearly all of the waterfront redevelopment area is man-made fill atop tideflats. That kind of material becomes highly unstable in major earthquakes.

But there are established techniques for minimizing the risks for new buildings on such sites, and local regulations and international building codes will mandate the use of those techniques.

"Each project will probably have to go through a site-specific seismic evaluation," Gouran said.