It’s been more than a dozen years since the Georgia Pacific pulp mill on Bellingham’s waterfront shut down and the local port district took ownership of 137 heavily polluted acres. Residents recently got a chance to tour the central waterfront parcel and learn about a new cleanup plan that they hope will ultimately lead to revitalization.
Near the railroad tracks, not far from Bellingham Bay, a couple dozen people gathered on a paved lot to see what the City of Bellingham and its port are doing to clean up more than 100 years' worth of pollution. Right now, it appears not much is happening around this site, geographically at the heart of the waterfront.
Kirsten McDade, a pollution prevention specialist with the community group RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, led the tour. To start, she took a moment to acknowledge that the asphalt where they were standing are the traditional lands of the Nooksack and Lummi Nation people.
“It’s a little ironic to say that because a hundred or so years ago, we would actually be in the tide flats — or swimming in the water right now,” she said. “This is not terra firma.”
It's landfill, one of four municipal garbage sites that the city once had — covered over and full of waste. McDade says that's the main source of the contaminants here, along with lots of fossil fuels that were dumped or leaked into the soil, mainly from marine industries.
The state Department of Ecology’s draft cleanup action plan outlines how much of the contaminated soils and sediment will be sent to a toxic waste site in Eastern Washington and how much can be capped and left in place. She says, to date, most of it has gone to a facility in Eastern Washington.
“So, if we can seal them here and they are just as sealed here as they would be on the east side of the mountains, maybe it makes sense to save all that fossil fuel usage in transporting them over the mountains,” she said. “So that’s part of what is discussed when you choose that clean up action plan.”
The option chosen only does a partial removal, focused on the most polluted area — at a cost of about $13.5 million. An option to remove all the soils would have cost more than 10 times as much. The state says cost-benefit analysis is used to choose the most feasible plan, but it only considers cleanup options that will protect human health and the environment.
McDade says the central waterfront parcel is just one of 12 unique sites in the waterfront cleanup.
"Two of them are complete and in the monitoring stage. There are a few others that are still in the remedial investigation phase. There are some really similar to this one that are in the cleanup action phase,” she said. “They’re all over the map."
Ian Fawley, an outreach specialist with the state Department of Ecology who is helping to oversee the cleanup, also took part in leading the tour. He says the changes here are still pretty incremental, because proper clean up takes time. But there are other parts of the waterfront where the process is further along.
“Like the pulp and paper mill portion of the Georgia Pacific West site. We’ve got a new park — Waypoint Park — there. We have the Granary Building being redeveloped. Plans for future office space, mixed-use development. So that one, you get to see really quite a dramatic change right now. Because it went through the whole cleanup process,” he said.
Waypoint Park is home to a new "acid ball" sculpture that some are already calling iconic. It's an artifact from the old Georgia Pacific plant.
Comments on the central waterfront cleanup action plan will be accepted until Aug. 6.
After that, officials will respond to the comments and release a design plan, before starting the actual work. The entire clean up and revitalization process is expected to take several decades to complete.