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Clean Water Blog

The Clean Water program is responsible for monitoring and protecting our precious water resources. We use science, policy and education to reduce pollution and toxics in the Salish Sea and its uplands and address water quality and quantity issues in rural Whatcom communities. Read more.

  • Towards a toxic-free waterfront: Touring a Bellingham Bay cleanup site  By Eleanor Hines, North Sound Baykeeper Video by Robert B. ClarkFifty people gathered on a brisk February afternoon (a Saturday, no less) to learn about the past — and discuss ...
    Posted Mar 13, 2019, 9:41 AM by Simon Bakke
  • Trump Administration's Clean Water Act slashes: What it means for us What just happened?The 1972 Clean Water Act has proven to be one of the most important federal laws for keeping water clean ever since Ohio’s Cuyahoga River literally ...
    Posted Mar 12, 2019, 5:54 PM by Simon Bakke
  • Let’s Bag our Plastic Problem: Support the Reusable Bag Bill By Eleanor Hines, North Sound BaykeeperUrge your state senator and representatives to pass the Reusable Bag Bill! An email template is at the bottom of this post.From the ...
    Posted Mar 1, 2019, 4:27 PM by Simon Bakke
  • Salish Sea Science: How volunteer-gathered data protects our shorelines  By Eleanor Hines, North Sound Baykeeper and Lead Scientist. Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, January 23rd, 2019Last spring, I trekked to the early-morning, calm shores of the Cherry ...
    Posted Jan 25, 2019, 1:50 PM by Simon Bakke
  • Working Towards Sustainable, Local Food Production  By Ander Russell, Clean Water Program ManagerWhat are the key building blocks for sustainable agriculture in our region? This is a critical question our Clean Water team at RE ...
    Posted Jan 23, 2019, 5:27 PM by Simon Bakke
Showing posts 1 - 5 of 58. View more »

Towards a toxic-free waterfront: Touring a Bellingham Bay cleanup site

posted Mar 12, 2019, 5:44 PM by Simon Bakke   [ updated Mar 13, 2019, 9:41 AM ]

 By Eleanor Hines, North Sound Baykeeper
 Video by Robert B. Clark

Fifty people gathered on a brisk February afternoon (a Saturday, no less) to learn about the past — and discuss the future — of one of 12 toxic cleanup sites in Bellingham Bay: the aptly-named “I & J Waterway” site, located between I and J streets, just south of the Bellwether Hotel.

The curious, engaged group of community members (along with a charismatic harbor seal) joined staff from the Port of Bellingham, Department of Ecology, and Bornstein Seafoods, that operates adjacent to the site. RE Sources hosted this tour, complete with a chance to talk with agency staff responsible for the site’s future, in an effort to encourage two-way dialogue and create transparency during the Bellingham Bay cleanup process. After all, the waterfront is being reclaimed for the whole community. Creating a space that benefits everyone requires input from that community, who in turn needs to hear what’s in the works behind the scenes.

Port and Ecology staff, RE Sources’ Pollution Prevention Specialist Kirsten McDade, and I each discussed the contaminants at the site — like carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (cPAHs), phthalates, and nickel —  as well as the proposed plan to clean them up. This site has been used by timber mills, an olivine rock crushing facility, and a seafood processing plant, which left contaminated sediments threatening marine life and our community’s health. 

“Where will these contaminants go?” inquired one participant, “and how will they be removed?” At tours like this, people can get their answers straight from the people involved: The cleanup action plan consists of a large area of the waterway to be dredged, which will remove the most toxic sediments, to be transported to a permitted landfill by truck or train.

The audience was also curious about what type of material will be used to cap one of the areas in the waterway. Lucy McInerney, Ecology’s site manager and lead scientist for the cleanup site, told them that they will consult with the Department of Fish and Wildlife to ensure that the imported material will be clean and fish-friendly. This means that forage fish, which form the foundation of the salmon-orca food web, will have appropriate sediments in which to lay eggs.

The pace of these cleanups can be frustratingly slow. It's not uncommon for them to take more than 20 years from start to finish. During the tour, the attendees realized the complexity of the cleanup process. Funding, of course, is a limiting factor, but the scale of the work alone can slow it down: gathering all the necessary sediment samples, meeting newer (usually stricter) sediment standards, ensuring the public has time to comment, and juggling the other 11 cleanup sites.

We want to extend a thank-you to all the people who joined us on this tour, showing your concern and curiosity about one of our local waterways. Your voice and opinions matter and can influence how Bellingham Bay is cleaned up.

Trump Administration's Clean Water Act slashes: What it means for us

posted Mar 12, 2019, 5:27 PM by Simon Bakke   [ updated Mar 12, 2019, 5:54 PM ]

What just happened?

The 1972 Clean Water Act has proven to be one of the most important federal laws for keeping water clean ever since Ohio’s Cuyahoga River literally caught on fire in 1969 — and upwards of 13 times in decades prior — because of the sheer quantity of pollutants in the water.

But in December 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and US Army Corps of Engineers announced they intend to redefine which water bodies would be protected by the Clean Water Act (CWA) from pollution and development. If adopted, the changes to the CWA would put the quality of drinking water, groundwater, wetlands, and streams in jeopardy nationwide — although in Washington State, we are fortunate to have protective state laws that don’t rely solely on the CWA’s bare minimums. Read below for more details.

This means local work and collaborations with Washington State, as well as with county and city agencies will be more important than ever if the already bare minimum federal standards are weakened under the new proposed regulation.

Making sure we maintain protections at the state and local level is our backstop to ensuring clean water for drinking, salmon habitat, and — by extension — endangered Southern Resident orcas, who rely on having enough salmon to eat.

The CWA has always included, and would still include, “traditionally navigable” waterways, though the language prior to 2015 was ambiguous and left polluters a lot of leeway in many parts of the country. But the recent proposal would outright eliminate protections introduced in 2015 for isolated wetlands, and for certain other water bodies such as streams and ditches not permanently connected to “traditionally navigable waters.”

What it means for Washington and RE Sources’ work

There is some hopeful news for Washington, however. Because our state laws already provide a stronger framework for safeguarding water than the federal Clean Water Act, Washington still has jurisdiction over its state waters. Washington State’s Department of Ecology defines what types of waterways to protect, and creates and enforces standards.

This is why RE Sources’ and others’ work with the Department of Ecology is so important. Now that the national safety net for clean water is being threatened, our local and state agencies are truly on the front lines, without help from the EPA. The work we do as a community and with local agencies matters now more than ever.

RE Sources provides Ecology with scientific comments on permits they grant to ensure they are considering impacts to the environment. We push Ecology to uphold their permits and encourage them to maintain high standards for the water bodies they protect, “traditionally navigable” or not. We work alongside Ecology and others on the Nooksack Watershed (WRIA-1) Planning Unit to ensure proper management of our water supply and enough clean water and habitat to restore salmon populations.

We are fortunate to live in a state that has many good, local protections in place beyond the minimum level the CWA mandates. But we can only protect water inside state lines. Our neighbors, like Idaho and Oregon, rely on the federal guidelines to protect state waters; the CWA changes could leave important salmon-bearing streams open to greater human impact.

Even though Washington has more robust protections than many other states, conflicting rules from the federal government will create confusion and could undermine efforts to stop ecologically and economically valuable wetlands from being polluted or filled in for development.

What Clean Water Act weakening means for clean water in the U.S.?

The Obama administration added language in 2015 that clarified the Clean Water Act and protected more water bodies like isolated wetlands, but the rule was never fully implemented in most states, and some unclear language remained. So far, only 25 state governments, including Washington, have made the choice to assert their right to maintain more thorough protections than federal minimums.

This 2018 change would make Clean Water Act language unambiguously exclude many more waterways than ever before.

By specifically removing language to protect otherwise-ignored water bodies, this move from the Trump administration adds false credibility to those who devalue the role of science in making decisions — the federal government is ignoring mountains of research that shows how important wetlands and less-connected water bodies are to ecosystems, to drinking water, and to local economies. 

According to the international Waterkeeper Alliance, of which our North Sound Baykeeper is a member, this proposal would “cut Clean Water Act protections for streams and wetlands across 3,000-plus watersheds in the western United States” and “accelerate the extinction of more than 75 endangered species, from steelhead trout to California tiger salamanders.” The changes would be especially dangerous for wetlands, which are often not directly connected to major rivers. American wetlands are key habitat for hundreds of plant and animal species, provide trillions of dollars in economic value, by improving drinking water quality, providing flood control, critical habitat, and can even sequester billions of tons of climate-damaging carbon dioxide.

How you can help

RE Sources hosts the North Sound Baykeeper, Eleanor Hines, who is part of the international Waterkeeper Alliance. They are spearheading the efforts to stop the damaging new Clean Water Act rules. The Trump administration rules are currently open for public comment. Read more here on how to add your voice.

If you aren’t already, make sure you receive our Clean Water emails, where we send you meaningful ways to take action — locally, regionally, and beyond — every month. Follow us on Facebook for the latest news on water issues.

First 2 photos by Brett Baunton. Third photo by Barry Spencer.

Let’s Bag our Plastic Problem: Support the Reusable Bag Bill

posted Feb 14, 2019, 6:19 PM by Simon Bakke   [ updated Mar 1, 2019, 4:27 PM ]

By Eleanor Hines, North Sound Baykeeper

Urge your state senator and representatives to pass the Reusable Bag Bill! An email template is at the bottom of this post.

From the Nooksack River to Locust Beach, thin, single-use plastic bags are consistently one of the top five pieces of trash we find at cleanups in our community, despite Bellingham’s own 2011 reusable bag ordinance. This illustrates one of the amazing qualities of our region’s fresh and saltwater ecosystems; they are dynamic, constantly moving and flowing downstream into our ocean. But that means nothing stays in one place — plastic pollution anywhere becomes plastic pollution everywhere.

Bellingham is the only city in Whatcom County to take action on plastic bags along with La Conner in Skagit County and over 25 other jurisdictions in the state. It is time to make reusable bags a tool for waste reduction across the state, not just through piecemeal, local efforts. We have a chance to do just that this year, joining the ranks of others like Hawaii and California to pass the Reusable Bag Bill (HB 1205 / SB 5323).  

Single-use plastic bags have an estimated useful life of just minutes before beginning their journey to the landfill, to our waterways, or into the stomachs of orcas and other wildlife. Plastic persists in the environment for hundreds of years, just to be used for one grocery trip. And even if the bag is reused once as a trash liner or for dog waste, it still will end up where we don’t want it. Recent studies have also shown that broken-down pieces of plastic not only contain toxic chemicals from the plastic itself, but other chemical contaminants such as carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) can cling to the surface of plastic pieces, making the toxic effect on wildlife an even bigger concern. 

Thankfully, the Reusable Bag Bill is even better than the Bellingham and La Conner ordinances, because it will apply to all retailers (many of whom support the bill, since it will give them more consistency in store operations across the state). It will add a ten-cent pass through fee that retailers keep when providing someone with a paper bag or thicker three-millimeter bag, that can be used again and again. This fee covers the cost for small mom-and-pop retailers. What’s more, the ten-cent fee is waived for people and families on limited incomes who may have forgotten to bring their reusable bag. 

Join the hundreds of businesses, organizations, elected officials, and individuals speaking in support of the Reusable Bag Bill (HB 1205/SB 5323) by writing or calling your State Senator and Representatives today (see sample comment below)! We can move away from single-use plastic one step at a time. Find your legislator's contact information here.

Sample letter to send your Senator and Representatives:

Subject line: Please support the Reusable Bag Bill (SB 5323/HB 1205)
Dear Representative/Senator _______,

Thank you for your public service. I am writing to ask for your support of the Reusable Bag Bill (SB 5323/HB 1205).

As a steward of our waterways, beaches, the Salish Sea, and the Pacific Ocean — and as a constituent in your district — I ask for your leadership in protecting our public land, waters, and communities from the impacts of single-use plastics by supporting the Reusable Bag Bill. Over 25 cities have passed ordinances eliminating single-use plastic bags at grocery and other retail stores. I think it is time for the legislature to act and follow suit. This bill has support from both clean water advocates and the retail sector, from mom-and-pop stores to large stores like Fred Meyer and Safeway.

Nothing we use for a few minutes should be allowed to pollute our oceans and rivers and threaten wildlife for centuries. 

Thank you for your consideration and I hope you will support the Reusable Bag Bill (SB 5323/HB 1205).

[Contact information]

Salish Sea Science: How volunteer-gathered data protects our shorelines

posted Jan 25, 2019, 1:50 PM by Simon Bakke

 By Eleanor Hines, North Sound Baykeeper and Lead Scientist. Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, January 23rd, 2019

Last spring, I trekked to the early-morning, calm shores of the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve just south of Birch Bay, alongside 15 inquisitive students, retirees and families with children. I was amazed this many people showed up on a Saturday. We ventured together onto the cobble beach armed with clipboards, data sheets, field guides, and an appreciation for the Salish Sea. We sought to observe and record information on the vast diversity of plants and animals that make their homes in the intertidal zone—the area of the shoreline that’s underwater at high tide and exposed during low tides.

Most of these people had little to no experience in scientific data collection—so what drew them here on a weekend morning?

With numerous warning signs about the declining health of Puget Sound, and funding shortfalls in natural resource agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the State Department of Ecology, keeping a pulse on our local waters is increasingly up to the very people these agencies serve. This handful of volunteers, or citizen scientists, are stepping up to the task.

There are extensive gaps in our understanding of organisms living in the Salish Sea and how pollution affects them, especially on a planet facing the unpredictability of climate change and ocean acidification. If a major oil spill or other catastrophe struck Puget Sound tomorrow, we wouldn’t even have enough information to fully understand the extent of the damage, let alone fix it all.

In order to tackle the problems in the Salish Sea—like declining Chinook salmon and orca populations, or increasing levels of pollutants draining into it from roads after rain—we need to get a sense of the bigger patterns at play. Citizen scientists, like those volunteers last spring, can help collect information critical to protecting salmon, local fisheries, endangered orca whales, important scenic and recreational areas, and more.

To fix a problem, we must first define it.

Public funding for monitoring such patterns has always been extremely tight. And it’s only gotten tighter as the funding that exists is constantly at risk of drying up. On top of this, hiring freezes and longtime staff retiring without replacements keep agencies hard-pressed to do what they were set up to do.

The Puget Sound Partnership estimates that filling gaps in monitoring key indicators of the Salish Sea’s health, like migratory bird populations or the amount of smaller fish that Chinook salmon eat, could cost $12.5 million annually. Work done by citizen scientists could help bring down this shocking figure. Citizen scientists, being equal parts “citizen” and “scientist,” are participating in research that informs public policy.

And there’s good news: anyone can be a citizen scientist!

Being a citizen scientist doesn’t just mean someone is casually interested in science. They bring their status as a citizen—as a voter—to the scientific process, putting themselves at the heart of making the big changes needed to create resiliency in ourselves and in the environment we all rely on.

Two years ago, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities and the Whatcom MRC formed the North Sound Stewards, a program in which citizen scientists receive training to build a reliable stock of data on various plants and animals from local beaches and tidal zones. The goal is to inform Salish Sea recovery and protection efforts. For example, RE Sources is working with the Washington Department of Natural Resources to use citizen science data in updated management and oil spill response plans.

“We need to make sure our elected officials and the public have both the information and motivation to act. Who better to help provide these than a voter who has also helped watch over our precious ocean ecosystems?” said Chris Brown, Whatcom Marine Resource Committee (MRC) member and citizen scientist.

To learn more or to become a citizen scientist, visit re-sources.org/north-sound-stewards.

Working Towards Sustainable, Local Food Production

posted Jan 23, 2019, 4:16 PM by Hannah Coughlin   [ updated Jan 23, 2019, 5:27 PM by Simon Bakke ]

 By Ander Russell, Clean Water Program Manager

What are the key building blocks for sustainable agriculture in our region? This is a critical question our Clean Water team at RE Sources is answering as we move toward ramping up our advocacy, policy, monitoring, and educational work in the coming year. We believe advancing local, sustainable agriculture requires action on several fronts:

Supporting a production-health-ecosystem balance

For us, sustainable agriculture means that food production, human health, and ecosystem health are all in balance. We serve on the Whatcom Food Network Steering Committee to ensure protection of water and land for farming is part of a county-wide food system plan. We worked alongside the WFN to get policies in the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan to create a food system plan for Whatcom County. Now the county is following through on those policies and setting up a Food System Advisory Committee, the purpose of which is, “to draft, implement, provide oversight for, and regularly update a county-wide food system plan to strengthen our local and regional food system.”

Protecting farmland

Creating and protecting sustainable food production means making sure there is land available for farming well into the future. Along with advocating for policies that protect water, we work at the state and local level to prioritize land use decisions that preserve land for ag. RE Sources has long been a champion of local agriculture and family farms, advocating for stronger agricultural lands protection in the Whatcom County Comprehensive Plan. We push for preventing urban sprawl into ag zones and for locating rural development in ways that protect and enhance the amount of land available for farming.

Supporting farmworker wellbeing

We believe that how we treat farmworkers in the food system has a direct connection with how we treat the land and water. We stand in solidarity with organizations like Community to Community and Familias Unidas in working towards a just and equitable food system. We will work in the coming year to build a strong intersectional approach to our clean water work that addresses poor working conditions for farmworkers, exacerbated by drought and pesticide exposure. The health of people most impacted by pollution and the health of our ecosystems cannot be separated.

Ensuring adequate water supply

Sustainable food production also means making sure there is a long-term supply of water for farms — balanced with enough water for people, for salmon, and other fish and wildlife. At the WRIA 1 Planning Unit we are working along side of the ag community to address our county’s most pressing water supply challenges. A sustainable food system relies upon long-term certainty of access to water, so it is imperative that we ensure we are advocating for science-based solutions to our water supply challenges that take climate change impacts into account.

This year we had over 650 conversations about water supply with folks around the county. One of the outcomes of that work was a better understanding of the challenges with water and land access faced by smaller local farmers. These are the farms that produce our Community Supported Agriculture boxes, and that sell at local farmers markets and grocery stores, like the Bellingham Food Co-op. We are committed to listening more to these farmers as we move forward in advocating for solutions to water supply issues.

Ensuring good water quality

Over a decade ago, we helped the launch the Tenmile Clean Water Project, a citizen group who adopted their watershed to improve water quality in rural Whatcom County. We continue to be a member of this citizen-led effort to involve rural property owners in taking action to protect and improve their watershed.

One key member of the Tenmile Clean Water Project is the Whatcom Conservation District. We support their work to address water quality impacts by farms of all sizes, including smaller hobby livestock farms. Monitoring water quality using sound, science-based methods is the best way to track the success of regulatory and voluntary efforts.

Balancing agriculture with the needs of marine food systems

Our work on a sustainable food system is also focused on ensuring thriving recreational, commercial and ceremonial shellfish harvesting. As a member of the Portage Bay Shellfish District Advisory Committee, we work alongside farmers, tribes and concerned citizens to advise the County Council on actions and operations relating to the restoration of water quality in the Portage Bay watershed.

We can have clean and plentiful water, a strong local food system, a vibrant local economy, and preserve farmland. But it takes work to keep it that way. RE Sources is committed to holding respectful conversation, seeking collaborative solutions, and partnering with all stakeholders to find a common solution.

Read about RE Sources' work to move development away from farmland and into cities, ensure enough water is available for people, farms, and fish, and protect Whatcom farmlands from urban sprawl.

Read more about RE Sources' Clean Water program.

What we heard from over 650 Whatcom residents about our water supply

posted Dec 11, 2018, 2:19 PM by Simon Bakke   [ updated Jan 23, 2019, 5:05 PM ]

By Krista Rome, Clean Water Organizer 

From endangered orcas, to healthy salmon populations that feed them, to the food on our tables, we all depend on having a reliable supply of water in streams, aquifers, and flowing from our taps. The pressures on our local water supply are numerous. Climate change is reducing the snowpack that feeds rivers in the summer, while simultaneously increasing demand for agricultural irrigation as summers get hotter and drier. Our region’s growing population adds the need for more residential water.

To learn more about what our community thinks about local water supply issues, impacts, and potential solutions, the Clean Water Team at RE Sources conducted a community questionnaire, “Better Understanding Whatcom Water Use”, during spring and summer 2018. 

We’ve been busy diving into the results, reading through the thoughtful comments, and having follow-up conversations to learn more about the wide range of perspectives and experiences people shared. We’ve also had some one-on-one conversations with local farmers and gardeners, adding valuable insight to our water challenges and helping expand the list of potential solutions.

We wanted to share a few of the main takeaways we gleaned from 653 community members:
  • Many people in rural Whatcom County are already experiencing water shortages, with wells running dry in the late summer. These are our friends and neighbors, and for them (as well as the salmon and the cultures that depend on them), this is not a problem of the future — it is the current reality.
  • 86% of respondents said they believe water conservation is an important issue and support the implementation of water conservation measures on a community level.  
  • 87% have tried reducing their personal water use at some point. Two-thirds of those reported doing so because they were concerned about our future water supply.
  • Respondents offered numerous creative, thoughtful ideas and strategies that can help us improve the health of our streams and safeguard an equitable water supply for all. 
Here is the full reportincluding raw data and other key findings.

In alignment with the expressed community interest in water conservation as an approach, we recently worked with the Environmental Caucus (which represents environmental interests on the committee tasked with restoring streamflows to the Nooksack watershed) and rural residents to ask the Whatcom County Council to set aside funds to start a County-wide Water Conservation Program for residential water users. The council agreed in early December, and we look forward to working with staff in 2019 to make this program successful. 

We’re excited to continue our work with the community on water supply. Here is the full report from our Community Water Supply Questionnaire.

(photo: Canyon Creek during low flow season, September 2018, by Krista Rome.)

Announcing RE Sources' new Executive Director!

posted Nov 16, 2018, 2:04 PM by Simon Bakke   [ updated Nov 16, 2018, 2:04 PM ]

From RE Sources Board president, Charlie Maliszewski 

Great news! The board of directors has hired an Executive Director who will lead the organization into what promises to be an exciting new chapter. With great pleasure, we would like to introduce you to Shannon Wright, strategic leader and time-tested activist, who has led successful, high-impact initiatives to protect the environment and support frontline communities. 

Shannon has been a leader in the environmental movement for more than twenty years.
 Some may know her as former ED of Communitywise Bellingham, one of the key orgs that  raised awareness to defeat the GPT coal terminal. She has also helped develop a dynamic strategy to bolster the BALLE movement for localized economies; forged alliances with diverse stakeholders to advance clean energy solutions with Greenpeace; addressed deforestation and supported indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest; and advocated for women’s rights in Andean farming communities with CARE International.

Shannon brings a collaborative approach to building coalitions and teams, with a strong track record in advocacy strategy, communications, fundraising, planning, organizational development, direct action, international coalition building, and team leadership. 

We are excited to see what happens with Shannon’s strategic guidance, visionary leadership, and advocacy chops, combined with the opportunities we now have with a pro-environment majority in the state legislature. 2019 will be the year for Washington State to become an example to our nation with a new generation of women in power who have the courage and foresight to tackle important issues like climate change.

We are grateful we can count on you, our supporters, to stand with us to protect the home we love and the values we share. 

Cleaning up Boulevard Park's industrial past

posted Nov 13, 2018, 4:49 PM by Simon Bakke   [ updated Nov 15, 2018, 10:58 AM ]

By Kirsten McDade, Pollution Prevention Specialist 

If you are anything like me, Boulevard Park on the Bellingham waterfront is always on my list when I’m entertaining out of town guests, or exploring the beaches with my family, to walk the boardwalk on a blustery day with a hot beverage in hand, or to picnic on the grassy fields as the sun sets. Boulevard park is one of the most popular parks in Bellingham, attracting more than 1 million visitors each year. Despite the crowds, I am continually drawn to the beauty of the park and the myriad of activities it has to offer.

It’s also a place that showcases how Bellingham’s industrial past left a legacy of pollution hidden in plain sight, just meters away from the fields and hangout spots. That’s why RE Sources, along with agencies working to clean up the waterfront, took a group of community members on a tour near the park to learn about its past and shape its future, as they had an opportunity to give a public comment to the Department of Ecology on their cleanup strategy.

As the new Pollution Prevention Specialist with RE Sources, I now look at Boulevard Park through a different lens. Did you know the majority of the park used to be a lumber mill? It burned down in 1925, but left behind tar-coated pilings and layers of wood-derived fill. (Below: North Boulevard Park in 1955).

Perhaps even lesser known is that a manufactured gas plant use to operate on the northern part of the park. The current park shelter, restrooms, and pocket beach all lie in the former footprint of this facility. During the late 1800s and early 1900s coal was brought to the gas plant and was heated up in containers called retorts. In the absence of air, the coal was broken down releasing gas that was captured, piped to holding tanks, and then delivered to customers to heat and light their homes. Burning coal to produce gas for homes and businesses left behind a variety of contaminants that remain in the soils and sediment, which are now a source of concern. Heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and copper have been found, along with cyanide and toxic fossil fuel byproducts. All of these contaminants pose a significant health hazard if they come in direct contact with living organisms.

So last month, we brought together concerned community members and representatives from Ecology, WA Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, the Port of Bellingham, and the City of Bellingham to explore the site’s history and the proposals to clean it up. While the exact cleanup methods aren’t set in stone, all of the proposals will dramatically improve the current conditions of the park for human and environmental health.

While Boulevard park has an interesting history, it is only one of 12 toxic cleanup sites that have been identified along Bellingham Bay’s waterfront, all containing toxic contaminants left over from Bellingham’s industrial past. They are all in different stages of the cleanup process, but when completed, the whole community will have reshaped the waterfront into a more livable and safe environment for humans while restoring critical habitat for our native organisms. If you are interested in learning more about the cleanup efforts occurring on the waterfront, keep a lookout for more tours offered by RE Sources. It’ll give you a lot to ponder the next time you’re watching the sunset anywhere along Bellingham Bay.

For more on our waterfront tours or how to get involved, email Eleanor at eleanorh@re-sources.org

Sorting It Out: How we're learning about trash to combat pollution

posted Oct 12, 2018, 9:21 AM by Simon Bakke   [ updated Oct 12, 2018, 9:21 AM ]

By Beau Seydel, Clean Water Program intern

Among the beautiful bays and public parks of Whatcom County and beyond, I find something hidden (sometimes not so hidden) that seems to reemerge every time I look.

Unfortunately, that hidden something is... garbage.

During my ventures collecting and sorting trash, I’ve found there’s an astonishing amount of garbage that’s invisible if you’re not paying attention. It’s only when you’re actively searching for trash do you find the cigarette butt wedged in the parking block, the bottle under some driftwood, or bag precariously hanging from the limb of a bush. 

Each year, over 14 million tons of plastic makes its way into our oceans, costing the world economy an estimated $13 billion. How can we even begin to give communities tools to tackle such a global problem?

That’s why people around the world are taking it upon themselves to find, clean up, and identify what exactly is being littered and where. RE Sources and partners, along with some intrepid volunteers, are at the forefront of testing out effective, easy-to-use methods of better understanding what types of trash are polluting which oceans and beaches, to better inform our local efforts to curb plastic pollution.

We’re finally starting to develop systems that allow us to scientifically categorize trash in different types of landscapes. And it’s not well-funded companies or research groups doing the heavy lifting, either; people in local communities are stepping up to test and improve these new systems to understand plastic, metal, and glass pollutants and how we can reduce their impact.

That’s what makes this so exciting and is why I got involved. Anyone can step in and make a difference in this field, whether they’re collecting data from a clean-up or simply helping to reduce litter on a beach.

In our community, I’ve worked primarily with RE Sources, helping the Environmental Protection Agency do trial runs on their own trash data collection system, the Escaped Trash Assessment Protocol (ETAP), with the goal of helping them refine it. We’ve been going through the tedious efforts of gathering trash in a specific plot of ground, sorting all the trash into 45 specific categories, then weighing, counting, and taking pictures. The process is time-consuming, but it does yield important data; data that can, for instance, make strides in providing more trash receptacles and informational signage relevant to the most abundant litter. The most interesting part of this work has been seeing what types and quantity of litter we find in areas across Whatcom County.

People are coming together worldwide to combat coastal pollution everywhere. The annual International Coastal Cleanup is a great example of how widespread this work is. Ocean Conservancy hosts this event as a whole, but it’s up to individual community groups and organizations, like RE Sources and the Northwest Straits Surfrider chapter, to gather people together and clean thousands of pounds of trash from our beaches. Programs like ETAP can improve the efficacy of these cleanups and help us get more out of them.

I must say, I’m impressed by the amount of people willing to spend their weekend afternoons collecting trash on the shore. The stewardship community members exhibit at these events fills me with hope for our ability to make a change. People are willing to bring supplies and properly dispose of trash and recyclables gathered. It’s not always easy putting a wet bag of trash in your car!

If you want to be part of the solution, meet other awesome folks in the community making change, and be on the cutting edge of citizen science, contact Eleanor Hines at eleanorh@re-sources.org, or apply to be a North Sound Steward today.

Bellingham’s waterfront: New public spaces, new hope for orcas

posted Aug 10, 2018, 10:39 AM by Simon Bakke   [ updated Aug 10, 2018, 10:39 AM ]

By Eleanor Hines, North Sound Baykeeper and Lead Scientist

A few weeks into Orca Month (also known as “June” to many of you), we got some sad news – we lost one of our iconic Southern Resident Orcas, bringing their population down to just 75 – the fewest orcas alive in the Salish Sea since the early 1980s. And then we saw the haunting display of love and loss when a mother orca carried her dead newborn calf on a “tour of grief” that lasted more than two weeks.

It all seems disheartening. But there are many ways our little length of shoreline in Bellingham Bay can play a key role in restoring our orca population, even though orcas are rarely seen here. To start a conversation about it, Moondance Sea Kayak Adventures and RE Sources took eight interested paddlers out on a kayak tour of Bellingham’s waterfront to celebrate Orca Month. We launched our tandem kayaks from Zuanich Park into the choppy water for a close-up look at seven spots along the waterfront — including some sites the public hasn’t had access to for decades.

Industrial activities in the 1900s followed by a legacy of pollutants left in the ground — like mercury, nickel, petroleum byproducts, and more — made most of the waterfront area off-limits to the public for about 100 years. The shoreline has also been physically altered by armoring, dredging up sediment, and filling in parts of the natural shoreline to build on. These changes make the waterfront hazardous to young Chinook salmon, which need clean, protected nearshore habitat to grow and make it to the open ocean. And Chinook salmon make up 80% of our resident orcas’ food source.

The decline of these salmon is a huge reason orca numbers have dropped and aren’t rising; Puget Sound Chinook are hovering around 10% of their historical numbers. Combined, the resident orca pods eat roughly half a million salmon per year. To give some perspective, the entire Skagit River can feed our orcas for about one month out of the year with its current salmon runs. Juvenile Nooksack Chinook, who rely on the habitat in Bellingham Bay, also face considerably smaller numbers of salmon returning. The spring Nooksack Chinook runs are listed as “Threatened” under the US Endangered Species Act.

It’s impossible to restore healthy orca populations without talking about helping salmon, and it’s impossible to help salmon without making Bellingham Bay hospitable to their young.

From Pollution to Public Parks

We were lucky enough to be one of the first-ever groups leading a visit to sites that demonstrate a successful and collaborative cleanup effort. Waypoint Park – home of the 400,000 pound, eye-catching acid ball – is a brand-new example of what the City of Bellingham and others hope can become of some of our old industrial sites. The public can access the area for the first time since pre-industrial times, now free of legacy pollutants left behind from the pulp and tissue mill operations at Georgia Pacific West. It’s been carefully constructed with rocks and a tiny pocket beach, creating perfect habitat for young Chinook, fresh out of their riverine hatching grounds to grow accustomed to the salty sea where they’ll become adults. In fact, the city added pocket beach to the design of Waypoint Park after getting input from the public. The City, the Port, the Department of Ecology, and others are also removing shoreline armoring, to prevent good habitat from eroding away.

All these teams turning swaths of polluted sediment into parks and salmon habitat is something unique and worth appreciating. Several of those kayaking with us had recently come to Bellingham from all over the place: North Carolina, Utah, a recently graduated college student and her aunt. One person hailed from Chicago, and he noted how toxic sites around his hometown haven’t been cleaned up, let alone considered for public use. Seeing a community actively trying to clean up – and provide access to the cleaned-up spaces – felt impressive and new.

Making sure the redevelopment suits our community’s needs, as well as those of the salmon that humans and orcas rely on, is a big priority. The good news is, like with Waypoint Park, we can build a thriving waterfront with interconnected parks and business without sacrificing plentiful habitat for orcas’ most critical food source. The City and Port of Bellingham have a dream of making a trail connecting some of these sites, incorporating parks and valuable habitat, making it a draw for people from downtown to the waterfront.

As your North Sound Baykeeper, it feels good to be on the forefront of reconnecting people with natural spaces around their home. We aim to have even more people come paddle on the water with us in the future. This is YOUR waterfront, and I hope you’ll join me to make it healthier for all.

What can YOU do?

Ecology will be releasing several public comment periods this fall on other cleanup sites, such as South State Street Manufactured Gas Plant at Boulevard Park and the I&J Waterway this September, so stay tuned for more tours and ways to participate in the public process of cleaning up and redeveloping our waterfront. Sign up for our e-news to get updates or check our permits website for updates on public comment periods.

If you want to attend a public meeting of Gov. Inslee’s Orca Task Force, check out schedules and agendas here. This is a unique opportunity to press the Task Force to take bold action to protect our orcas. The time for business-as-usual is over; the orcas, salmon, and people who rely on them deserve better.

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