Statement on ABC Recycling metal shredder proposal

January 25, 2024

It probably comes as no surprise that some concerned community members have reached out to us to ask what our level of involvement is in ABC Recycling’s proposed metal shredder off of Marine Drive — perhaps you are one such person. 

We are actively following the developments, have staff attending meetings and looking into environmental concerns, both with the existing scrap metal pile operations at the Port of Bellingham Shipping Terminal and with the plans put forward by ABC Recycling for the metal shredder on Marine Drive. Our science and advocacy staff have consulted with the leaders of the Save the Waterfront campaign effort upon request and have agreed to share emerging information. To date, public meetings we’ve attended seem to have left all parties frustrated. ABC Recycling has not fully addressed the community’s questions and high tensions have led to less-than-productive exchanges.

This project touches on several issues core to RE Sources’ mission and decades of history: planning, policy and pollution. The community conversation over whether this project should proceed is important, and we’ll push to make sure the public process is as open and transparent as it should be and that the environmental review is as rigorous as it can be — as we do with many development projects throughout Whatcom and Skagit Counties.

These projects raise some critical, complex questions that our community needs to think about as waterfront development moves forward, as we plan for growth, as we work to support efforts of workers and labor unions, and as we continue to struggle with addressing environmental degradation and the  climate crisis while centering those most impacted.

Accepting that all forms of development come with varying degrees of environmental impact, we need to reflect on the changes we’re willing to accept, both in our neighborhoods and in our broader region. These are relational questions as much as they are planning and environmental questions. Oftentimes, tackling these questions can feel uncomfortable because of the complexity and the long haul work it takes to come to agreement. That’s why RE Sources works hard to elevate and encourage public participation in the Whatcom Comprehensive Plan (the comp plan determines how and where we grow) update process. With our support, County leadership passed a resolution to ground the coming comp plan update process in equity and climate resilience. Plans like this allow our community to have input on development projects without the burdensome process of tackling each one on a case-by-case basis.

It’s encouraging to see so many in our community raising the issue of pollution impacting our waterfront and Bellingham Bay. RE Sources has been watchdogging industrial operations on the waterfront for 30 years. We have used all the tools at our disposal, ranging from legal action to community driven change, working to bring attention to the fact that our waterfront is already seriously polluted, both from a toxic legacy of point-source polluting industries that shuttered decades ago as well as from widespread non-point source pollution in the form of toxic stormwater runoff. If nothing else, we are glad to see so many people re-engaging in the issue of pollution in Bellingham Bay, because we have a lot of work to do on that front, whether a metal shredder gets built or not. That said, our staff have been looking into pollution impacts from the existing scrap metal operation and have made recommendations for mitigating air and water pollution.

Not only does this project touch on policy, planning and pollution, it’s also about recycling, the very cause around which our organization was founded over 40 years ago. Part of this community conversation needs to be about whether we still prefer recycling to extracting raw materials, and if so, how and where we go about recycling the products we all discard. At the same time, can we avoid repeating the centuries-long cycle of foisting undesirable industrial projects onto communities that lack the political power to refuse them, historically communities of color and low-income communities?

In addition to engaging in these bigger picture issues, RE Sources is following the State Environmental Policy Action (SEPA) permit process for the Alderwood neighborhood metal shredder project. The current land use rules for the Alderwood neighborhood (outside City limits, but within the Bellingham Urban Growth Area) are problematic, with heavy impact industrial (HII) zones adjacent to urban residential zones. The County can better avoid future conflicts between the interests of residents and businesses, by updating the zoning code to clearly identify more specifically what uses are acceptable with particular conditions and parameters.

Regardless of current or future zoning rules, any future project applications must undergo environmental review per the SEPA. Potential industrial uses which would have adverse impacts, even while currently allowed in Whatcom County Code, could nonetheless be denied permits if their foreseeable environmental impacts are significant and unmitigable.

This could be the case for numerous uses that are currently allowed in the HII zone, especially if sited in close proximity to residences, schools, waterways, wildlife habitats and other conflicting land uses. Whatcom County Planning & Development Services (PDS) is the designated responsible authority to first determine whether project proposals would have significant impacts, mitigable or unmitigable. 

RE Sources is committed to holding governments and industries accountable for the interests of protecting people and ecosystems, and our staff will review future SEPA applications and PDS decisions for projects in any Heavy Impact Industrial Zone. Moreover, we look forward to engaging as an environmental community stakeholder in forthcoming public processes to amend local laws and policies concerning heavy impact industrial land use in Whatcom County. 

Meanwhile, we are staying focused on the larger picture of how to ensure that all development projects in our region are reviewed with the highest level of scrutiny both for their impacts to the environment and to adjacent communities. With limited staff time and financial resources, we try to focus our energy on how we can move forward on the larger systemic changes that are needed. And with a lot of this community already engaged on the metal shredder, we are continuing that work while providing as much support and input as we can.