Bellingham port environmental director retires after 20 years

Mike Stoner, Port of Bellingham environmental director, answers questions during a Waterfront Twilight Walking Tour on the Georgia-Pacific site on Aug. 1, 2013. Stoner is retiring after more than 20 years working for the port on waterfront cleanup.
Mike Stoner, Port of Bellingham environmental director, answers questions during a Waterfront Twilight Walking Tour on the Georgia-Pacific site on Aug. 1, 2013. Stoner is retiring after more than 20 years working for the port on waterfront cleanup. The Bellingham Herald

When Mike Stoner first toured the Port of Bellingham’s properties 20 years ago, he started to make a mental list of contaminated sites that needed work.

It was 1995, and he had just been hired as the port’s environmental director. Before that, he’d been working with the Environmental Protection Agency on Superfund hazardous waste cleanup sites such as Commencement Bay in Tacoma.

“The first thing I did was ... start making a list of what I thought might be a site under the Model Toxics Control Act,” Stoner said. “Pretty quickly I came up with 10 or 15.”

Two decades and countless hours of investigating, building partnerships, and environmental planning later, one of the largest cleanup projects on that list is about to break ground and Stoner is set to retire.

“There’s been a few of these projects that man, I really wanted to see happen, and I wasn’t going to let go until we saw something,” Stoner said. “I’m glad the Whatcom Waterway is here, and the (waterfront redevelopment) master plan is here. I’ve been here a really good long time, and it’s really been a blast.”

After Friday, June 12, he’ll pass the torch to Brian Gouran, currently the port’s environmental site program manager.

“(Gouran) is a real talent, and has just the right technical background, project experience and personality to deliver on some of the expectations that we’ve created for a new community waterfront,” Stoner wrote in an email.

Originally from the Midwest, Gouran earned both his undergraduate degree in geology and his master’s degree in environmental policy at Western Washington University. He’s been with the port for about eight years, and will be paid a salary of $89,635.

The transition comes just as the first phase of work in the Whatcom Waterway is gearing up to start this summer. To date, it will be the largest cleanup of historic contamination from the former Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp, chemical and tissue operations on the Bellingham waterfront.

Building an environmental program

Stoner was hired to help grow the port’s then-bare-bones environmental program.

About the same time Stoner started thinking about the list of Bellingham cleanup sites, the EPA, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, state Department of Natural Resources, and state Department of Ecology wanted to see if any Puget Sound communities were willing to tackle a bay-wide cleanup in a new way.

“It would be under more of a cooperative partnership rather than hardcore Superfund litigation,” Stoner said. “So I convinced my boss and our Port Commission at the time to go after that. We ended up winning it.”

The groups formed the Bellingham Bay Demonstration Pilot team, which also includes the city of Bellingham, Whatcom County, Lummi Nation, the Nooksack Indian Tribe, the state and federal departments of Fish and Wildlife, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Through that work, planners got their first glimpse of just how expensive cleaning up the bay might be, Stoner said.

“We took that huge, looming cost, and really kind of asked ourselves, ‘How are we going to pay for this?’” he said.

Part of the work meant going to Ecology for grants. In addition to a $20 million contract with Ecology for grant funding, much of the waterfront could be cleaned up with help from MTCA, which collects a tax on crude oil and other potential pollutants that enter the state to dole out cash for cleanup projects.

Stoner was also one of numerous port employees to tackle a pre-1986 insurance claim against Lloyd’s of London and Travelers Insurance for contamination between 1950 and 1986. They eventually settled, giving the port a $15 million environmental “war chest.”

“It gave us an environmental reserve, and it also prepared us to go after more projects,” Stoner said. “I was in deposition for six months trying to prove our case, and that was exhausting, but there was a payoff: We really knew our stuff, and we knew the history of this waterfront better than anybody.”

When G-P put its property up for sale, the port staff systematically looked at what would be beneficial and what wouldn’t, Stoner said.

“We always use the ASB (wastewater treatment lagoon) as a great example: 35 million tons of rock in place as a breakwater represents an asset — it’s hard to get that permitted today,” he said. “But the 350,000 cubic yards of industrial sludge inside it represents a liability. We took that approach to virtually every part of the waterfront.”

Stoner emphasized that all the projects he’d worked on involved sustained political leadership and dedicated staff members, that he was just a “cog in the machine, a humble public servant.” Specifically, he said that good things happened because of the leadership of Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, current and former Port Executive Directors Rob Fix and Jim Darling, Ecology’s Toxics Cleanup Program Manager Jim Pendowski, and others.

Of all the work during his 20 years with the port, Stoner said he was proudest of the partnerships he had helped build.

“That is something that I think will continue to pay off over the long term,” he said. “That kind of legacy of us working very closely with Ecology, and with the city, with the Lummi Nation — we have a real opportunity right now to work together with the Lummi Nation toward common goals. The more of those you put together, the more you find opportunity to do good work on behalf of the community.”

Gouran said that moving forward, he will be focused on implementing the cleanup projects Stoner helped plan.

“Building up to this is so much work. People kind of don’t see it happening, and wonder ‘Why is nothing happening?’” Gouran said. “Well, when you go through this list and kind of describe how we got here, there’s a ton of work. I’m looking forward to building on that to make it happen and get people down to the waterfront.”

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-715-2274 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com. Read the Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog and follow her on Twitter at @BhamPolitics.