Boatyard concerned Whatcom Waterway cleanup could end barge operations

Crushed rock from Lummi Island is unloaded at Colony Wharf in Bellingham in this 2004 photo.
Crushed rock from Lummi Island is unloaded at Colony Wharf in Bellingham in this 2004 photo. The Bellingham Herald

A $35 million cleanup in the Whatcom Waterway could start this August, but at least a few people are concerned the work may permanently remove the only barge loading ramp between Vancouver, B.C., and Seattle.

Port of Bellingham Commissioners Dan Robbins and Jim Jorgensen gave the OK Tuesday, Jan. 6, to pay environmental and engineering firm Anchor QEA $193,751 to update a 2008 survey of underwater sediment levels, develop a final engineering design report for the cleanup, and complete other tasks needed to clear the way for a construction bid to go out this spring.

But commissioner Mike McAuley questioned whether the cleanup would come at the cost of a working waterfront. He voted against the amendment, saying he can’t support the current plan — something he’s stuck by each time it has come before the commission for an update.

The cleanup plan selected by the Department of Ecology and the port will involve removing creosote-soaked pilings and dredging parts of the waterway to remove contaminated sediment, then capping those underwater areas with clean material. A bulkhead also will be installed along part of the shoreline.

The cleanup has been held up for more than a year while the port and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers worked with Lummi Nation to address the tribe’s concerns about the plan. As of Thursday, Jan. 8, it appeared likely the corps soon could grant the cleanup permit since the port had resolved the issues raised by Lummi, said Port Executive Director Rob Fix.

The tribe had concerns about whether the cleanup would restore the waterway to the best extent possible, Fix said. In working with the tribe, the port agreed to additional monitoring of the site during and after the cleanup and also agreed to coordinate with the tribe’s fisheries to make sure the cleanup equipment won’t interfere with tribal fishing boats.

The plan also calls for the removal of a hydraulic barge ramp on the waterway, but does not include plans to replace it with a different system, which is part of the reason McAuley said he can’t support the plan.

“The thing I struggle with ... we’re doing cleanup first as opposed to commerce first,” McAuley said during discussion before Tuesday’s vote.

The ramp is the only one of its kind between Vancouver and Seattle, said Mark Lake, one of a handful of employees who own the Landings at Colony Wharf boatyard.

While Colony Wharf is primarily a boatyard, it also uses the port’s roughly 60-foot barge ramp to unload and load barges in the shallow waterway when needed. Recently, the company worked with Cowden Gravel and Ready Mix to load more than 20 barges with gravel, which was shipped to an environmental cleanup project near Anacortes, Lake said.

Port staff told the commissioners the port doesn’t need the barge ramp because it doesn’t get much traffic, McAuley said in an interview.

“But when I talk to Colony Wharf, I’m hearing a very different story, dramatically different from what I heard from port staff,” McAuley said.

Lake said barge traffic varies based on demand, but taking away the ramp altogether would potentially cost not only Colony Wharf but also the other local companies that use the ramp to deliver their products, such as Cowden.

“Barging comes and goes, but unless the world stops turning, stuff will need to be moved,” Lake said.

The cleanup plans allow for a temporary ramp to be put in use during construction work. Port Environmental Director Mike Stoner and Fix said port engineers are working on designing the temporary ramp, but a permanent replacement could be several years down the line, as a development permit would be needed to replace the structure.

Lake said he is concerned that once the ramp is taken out and work starts on building the bulkhead up from the shore, there won’t be a feasible temporary fix, let alone a permanent fix.

“They say they’ll put in a temporary ramp, but I need you to explain that to me,” Lake said. “If they’re building a three-foot bulkhead and filling in the current area that’s dug out for the ramp, that makes the ramp only 30 feet. That’s not long enough. You’ll get too steep of a grade with the depth of the water there most of the day. I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I betcha money it ain’t going to work.”

Fix and Stoner said the port had considered dredging the channel deeper in the area of the ramp, which is currently about 8 feet deep at a zero tide, but that it would cost millions more than the current plan.

“The cost we came up with was $11 million, including dredging, bulkhead work and other design projects,” Stoner said. “Everyone wants a deeper channel and more bulkheads, but it comes down to what you want and what you can afford to pay for.”

With the amendment approved Tuesday, the current plan cost so far is $8.7 million. As a cleanup, the project is funded with grant money from the state and a port insurance policy, funds that cannot be used for development, Stoner said.

McAuley said he thinks the port has the money to pay for the extra work to make sure the barge ramp is replaced.

“I’m not pretending this is free, but I will contend even if it takes more money, and it takes more time, the businesses that rely on that ramp will be a whole lot happier if they have access to that facility than if they can never access it again,” McAuley said. “If say, in five or seven years, we put a ramp back in, in the interim all of the business that relied on the ramp will have gone. They’ll have moved somewhere else, and unless there’s a really compelling reason for them to move back here, they’re not likely to move back.”

Aside from the issue of added cost is the issue of a permit change, Fix said. Port staff contend the entire cleanup would need to be redesigned and the port would have to start the process over, applying for a development permit.

“We haven’t talked about if we could even get that permitted. It was a struggle to get the permit we did get,” Fix said. “If we would have gone farther we would have had more objections.”

But McAuley said he disagrees — replacing the existing structure would be considered an upgrade, which he thinks would be allowed by regulatory agencies.

“Ports have a specific mission ... their mission is economic development. Everything we do supports that. We do cleanup not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it supports economic development in the county,” McAuley continued. “I think this plan clearly makes a statement to the marine trades industry we’re not interested in what they’re doing.”