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

March 12, 2019

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.

You can write a comment on the I & J site cleanup online here until Wednesday, March 20th, 2019.

Stay tuned for more tours offered by RE Sources!