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Port weighs toxic cleanup methods on Bellingham waterfront

The Port of Bellingham's proposed cleanup plan may not remove all the toxic mercury left in the water and on the land by discharges from Georgia-Pacific West Inc.'s chlorine plant, but it appears to be typical of what is being done at contaminated aquatic sites around the country.

On the aquatic side, the port's plan for Bellingham Bay cleanup appears to be one of the more ambitious such projects in the nation, according to a report prepared by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

An April 2003 EPA report found that out of 108 sediment cleanup projects undertaken up to 2001, only 6 percent cost more than $40 million. The port expects to spend $16.5 million dredging and capping contaminants in the Whatcom Waterway, and another $23.5 million dredging contaminants from the G-P treatment lagoon, in order to convert it into a marina, for a total cost of $40 million.

The port's project would also be a big one in terms of volume. The same EPA report found that only 2 percent of completed aquatic projects involved removal of more than 500,000 cubic yards of sediment. The port's plan calls for removal of 150,000 cubic yards from the waterway and another 350,000 cubic yards from the lagoon, for a total of 500,000.

In addition to sediment removal, the port plans to leave some contamination in the bay, as well as on land at the waterfront site of G-P's now abandoned pulp and chemical operations. The mill site plan envisions spending another $13 million on cleanup there. Plans call for covering or "capping" relatively low-level contamination on land and in the water with clean material.

Port Environmental Director Mike Stoner said the contamination levels in the bay and at the mill site have been extensively mapped over a period of years. And since June, when G-P offered to give its land to the port, former G-P employees have stepped forward with tips about where to look for contaminants. Stoner said all those tips have been checked out.

The result: Testing has found mercury levels high enough in spots to justify the cost of soil and sediment removal. But in most areas, in the bay and on the land, mercury concentrations are low enough to make capping a more cost-effective technique to protect the environment and human health, Stoner said.

Mercury levels in the bay's surface sediments around the mill are in the 1 to 2 parts-per million range, Stoner said. The Department of Ecology's cleanup standard for the bay is 1.2 parts per million, and that level is exceeded in only three spots, Stoner said.

Mercury, a metallic element that is liquid at normal temperatures, can trigger birth defects and damage the nervous system, among other health problems. It can find its way into the human food supply when it accumulates in fish and other aquatic edibles . Leaving any of it behind makes some people nervous.

Downtown property redeveloper Doug Tolchin, a longtime critic of G-P's environmental record, has called the port's plan "more of a cover-up than a cleanup."

But some environmental advocates and scientists say capping, while not ideal, is often the best option. And the port's plans appear to go well beyond what G-P could legally be required to do if the port's proposed takeover of the corporation's 137 acres falls through.

Greg Wingard, executive director of the Seattle-based Waste Action Project, said mercury should be removed, not capped, whenever possible. The Waste Action Project is a citizen group that has taken an active watchdog role in a number of cleanup efforts around Puget Sound.

"If you dredge it, you're getting it out of there and that's permanent," Wingard said.

But he observed that dredging can also cause problems, especially when it is aimed at relatively low levels of contamination, as is the case in Bellingham Bay.

EPA's 2003 report agrees, noting that attempts to reduce already-low levels of mercury contamination with dredging have not always been successful because dredges may scatter sediments around in the process of trying to remove them.

For those kinds of projects, covering the contamination with clean sediments may be a realistic alternative, shielding aquatic critters from exposure to mercury and keeping it out of the food chain.

Capping sediments is also cheaper than digging them out and hauling them off to a landfill that must be equipped with stringent environmental safeguards. Wingard acknowledged that the price tag winds up being an important factor when state and federal regulators decide what type of cleanup to require.

"There's some tradeoffs you've got to look at," Wingard said.

Danny Reible, co-director of the Hazardous Substance Research Center at Louisiana State University, said capping has been used successfully since the 1980s to keep toxins from spreading.

"Capping is a reasonably established way of dealing with these things," Reible said. "One of the advantages is you can cut off exposure and risk very quickly."

Capping is not new in Bellingham Bay. In 2001, G-P, state and local officials agreed on a Bellingham Bay cleanup plan that included some capping - after former State Lands Commissioner Jennifer Belcher dropped her longstanding objections to that idea.

One of the most toxic areas of the bay was G-P's so-called log pond, a small man-made inlet where the company floated logs headed into the mill for conversion into chips and eventually, pulp and paper. The log pond was also the place where mercury-laden waste entered the bay beginning in 1965.

State Department of Ecology officials wanted to seal off the high levels of mercury in the log pond as quickly as possible, without risking stirring it up and spreading it more widely. They decided the best alternative would be to cover the contamination with a thick layer of clean fill. The project was meant to seal off the mercury while also creating a shallow area that would provide aquatic habitat.

So far it seems to be working. Follow-up tests have not detected escape of mercury, and eelgrass has taken root atop the cap. Eelgrass is considered good habitat for marine life, and juvenile salmon have already been detected in the area, according to a follow-up report by Anchor Environmental LLC of Seattle.

Whatcom County Council member Dan McShane, a geologist who does environmental consulting work, said he generally leans toward capping as an acceptable alternative to full excavation and removal, which poses its own environmental risks and winds up moving a toxic problem somewhere else.

The biggest drawback of the capping approach may be the release of contaminants in a severe earthquake, McShane said.

While it may be impossible to safeguard against the damage that would result in a worst-case earthquake scenario, Stoner said the sediment caps will be designed with earthquake risks in mind, and earthquake survivability will be one of the issues addressed as actual cleanup measures are engineered and permits are issued.

Whatever the merits of total removal of mercury, there appears to be no scenario where total removal would be required of G-P or anyone else.

Jim Pendowski, the Ecology Department's toxics cleanup program manager, said the law requires a cleanup project to bring toxic exposure risks down to acceptably low levels, and that often can be achieved without full removal of mercury or other toxins.

The port's cleanup proposal goes well beyond what the state would require G-P to do to meet environmental standards for industrially used land, Pendowski said.

Cleanup standards for property to be used for parks, residences and offices are higher, and the port's plans are aimed at meeting those standards to enable the transformation of the mill site into a new neighborhood.

Among other things, the port plans to create extensive areas of aquatic habitat in and around the treatment lagoon. Habitat creation is not something the state could require as part of a cleanup plan.

"Our goal in Bellingham Bay is to get good environmental cleanup," Pendowski said. "This promises that and more."

A consultant's report, prepared for G-P and turned over to the port, recommends a cleanup plan for the mill site that would cost $1.2 million-less than one-tenth what the port proposes to spend.

Pendowski has also pledged that his agency will pay half the port's cost of the cleanup work, using money raised from a toxic cleanup tax that is collected on crude oil and other potential pollutants that enter the state. Money from that tax is available to local governments like the port - but not to corporations like G-P.

At last week's meeting with the Bellingham City Council, Port Commissioner Doug Smith observed that the bay is already a lot cleaner than when he was a boy. He recalled wading in the bay more than 60 years ago, and his mother washing the coal dust off his legs afterwards.

The port's cleanup plan may be the best opportunity to get the bay to the next level, he said.

"If the port and the city choose not to take this opportunity, my grandchildren are going to be looking at the same thing I'm looking at now."

WHAT'S NEXT

The Bellingham City Council is expected to vote Monday on an agreement to work with the Port of Bellingham on redeveloping waterfront property the port is moving to acquire from Georgia-Pacific West Inc.

The council is expected to discuss the matter briefly at a 1 p.m. committee meeting in the mayor's boardroom at City Hall, 210 Lottie St., before taking a formal vote on it during the 7 p.m. regular session in council chambers.

Port of Bellingham commissioners will address the matter at their 3 p.m. Tuesday meeting in the Harbor Center conference room, 1801 Roeder Ave. They are expected to direct port staff members to draw up legal documents related to the transaction for final approval by the end of January.

Port commissioners pushed back an earlier Tuesday deadline for a final decision to allow more time for public scrutiny of the transfer documents.

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