Cleanup work along Bellingham’s waterfront to start this summer

Crews could start work on a more than $35 million environmental cleanup of a polluted Bellingham waterfront site as soon as July.

The Port of Bellingham Commission approved a contract for cleaning up the Whatcom Waterway with American Construction Company of Tacoma during its regular Tuesday afternoon meeting, May 19. The vote was 2-1, with Commissioner Mike McAuley opposed.

“Although I think the project has been carefully designed, I think we have missed some opportunities for our marine trades,” McAuley said. “I still continue to believe the design fails to support the long-term needs of our marine trades here in Whatcom County.”

McAuley has voted no at various stages of planning for the Whatcom Waterway Phase 1 cleanup, as one portion of the project involves removing a hydraulic barge ramp on the waterway, without approved plans to put a permanent replacement there. Not having a ramp could prohibit certain barging activities that currently take place in the waterway.

The cleanup permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allows for a temporary ramp to be used during project construction. But it won’t be clear if that ramp will be made permanent until Anchor QEA, an environmental and engineering firm, requests the needed permit on behalf of the port in coming months.

The overall project is the largest cleanup the port will have taken on related to historic contamination from the former Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp, chemical and tissue operations.

The cleanup was held up for more than a year while the port and the Army Corps worked with Lummi Nation to address the tribe’s concerns about the plan. Once those issues were resolved, the port was granted its permit early this year.

The first work on land can start in July, and then from Aug. 1 through March 14, 2016, crews will be allowed to work in the waterway.

Much of the in-water work will include dredging and removing some 160,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment, then replacing it with sand and protective layers of rock to cap the remaining contaminants. Roughly 265 tons of creosote-soaked timber also will be removed during the project, said Mike Stoner, the port’s environmental director.

One of the most visible pieces of the project will involve replacing a portion of bulkhead with a more natural sloped shoreline along part of the G-P site, said John Hergesheimer, senior project manager.

“A lot of the things we’re doing are underwater, you don’t see it,” Hergesheimer said. “What you will see is a major change along the shoreline on the (southeast) side.”

Also slated for removal: An old Chevron dock, a pile of rubble at the end of C Street, and riprap along the shoreline.

Commissioner Dan Robbins asked whether the cleanup project, which could be covered up to 50 percent by state revenue from the Model Toxics Control Act, would possibly be in jeopardy if state lawmakers divert money from that fund. MTCA money comes from a tax on crude oil and other potential pollutants that enter the state.

Even if the fund, which is relied upon for numerous cleanups throughout the state, were not available, this particular project would be OK, Stoner said.

“When we first started this back in 2004-2005, we had the Department of Ecology confirm their commitment to this project,” he said. “Today, because of that foresight, we have a grant contract with Ecology that provides about $20 million in grant funding, so that is more than the 50 percent we need for this project.”

The other half will be covered by an AIG insurance policy the port took out.

In addition to approving $30.6 million for construction, and $1 million in contingency money, the commissioners moved $15 million from the 2016 anticipated budget for the project to 2015, which was originally budgeted at $20 million this year. The change revised the Whatcom Waterway and Central Waterfront remediation budget for this year to $35.2 million.

The commissioners also approved giving Anchor QEA another $401,345 (in a 2-1 vote, McAuley opposed) to continue with a variety of engineering, construction management and support services. Hergesheimer said he expected to bring another request to pay Anchor QEA for continuing support in July, at the end of the year, then likely again some time after the cleanup is complete, when long-term monitoring will need to be set up.