Over this past year, the Southern Resident Orca population lost three family members, bringing the whole population to a solemn 73 as of the beginning of August 2019. Alongside many organizations and community members like you throughout the Salish Sea region, RE Sources advocated for new legislation this year to protect these revered marine mammals that thankfully became law. These laws will restore more than the Salish Sea’s orca — they will prevent oil spills, improve salmon habitat, and reduce toxic materials in products that harm children as well as orcas.
June is Orca Month, celebrated throughout Washington State for its 13th year to raise awareness about our iconic orca and health of the Salish Sea. To celebrate Orca Month and the groundbreaking new protections Washington put in place this year, RE Sources Pollution Prevention Specialist Kirsten McDade and I led about 20 people on a tour of Bellingham Bay by kayak with the help of Moondance Sea Kayak Adventures and staff from Washington State Department of Ecology and the Port of Bellingham. Along the way, we highlighted the efforts to clean up the twelve toxic contaminated sites to help protect orca, salmon, and other marine organisms from being poisoned by contaminants left in the sediment from decades of waterfront industry.
Beginning the tour at Waypoint Park — Bellingham’s newest public park converted from a cleaned-up contaminated site— we talked about stormwater and its impacts on salmon and orca, as pollutants that build up on the city’s paved surfaces wash down into the bay. The Port of Bellingham has been taking several measures to make sure that stormwater pollution from Port property is minimized, including carefully planned drainage systems and developing an integrated pest management plan to limit the harms of pesticides on marine life.
We then paddled onward to Cornwall Beach. Port staff talked to community members about current projects and possible future uses of the shoreline, such as how the Aeration Stabilization Basin (ASB) was originally going to be turned into a marina, but now may be reimagined for other uses not yet decided on. At Cornwall Beach, Department of Ecology staff greeted kayakers and talked more about the Model Toxics Control Act — a law passed by citizen’s ballot initiative that guides how we clean up especially polluted places. While the group enjoyed a pizza dinner, Ecology gave an update on the progress of cleaning up the twelve toxic sites and turning them into functional places the whole community can benefit from.
What surprises most people is how long this cleanup process takes. Some cleanups take longer than others, but that’s because the process is a thorough one. It involves taking comprehensive chemical measurements, evaluating whether the cleanup’s cost provides proportionate benefit to human health and the environment, and choosing the best out of several possible cleanup action plans. Providing a cleaner, healthier, safer site for intended future uses while minimizing cost needs to be carefully considered, especially because there are twelve cleanup sites in Bellingham Bay alone that need some love, and over 13,000 throughout our state. It’s taken a long time, but we are finally seeing progress with the opening of Waypoint Park and businesses moving into the adjacent Granary Building. There’s still a ways to go, but it’s better than having an inaccessible waterfront filled with permanent brownfields — areas that remain so contaminated, they cannot be used for anything.
As our Bellingham Bay cleanup sites continue onward to their final cleanup stages, you can stay up to speed by following us on Facebook, getting email updates with actions you can take, and visiting RE Sources’ Public Comments and Events webpages for chances to have your voice heard and for upcoming tours of local waterways. Together, we can better protect our community from contaminants and make our waters safer for ourselves, for salmon, and for the orca.
This product is funded through a Public Participation Grant from the Department of Ecology.
By Eleanor Hines, North Sound Baykeeper and Lead Scientist