Cleaning up Boulevard Park’s industrial past

November 13, 2018

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
By Kirsten McDade, Pollution Prevention Specialist