The Bellingham waterfront’s industrial history
The Bellingham Waterfront was a seat of industrial activity for more than 100 years, an era that ended with the closure of the Georgia-Pacific tissue mill in 2007. Industries left behind a legacy of toxic pollutants in the soil, sediment, and water — including mercury, nickel, dioxins, petroleum byproducts, and more. The shoreline was also physically altered by armoring off beaches, dredging up sediment, and filling in parts of the natural shoreline to build on.
See our map of the 12 contaminated sites in Bellingham Bay and where each one is in the cleanup process.
Until very recently, this industrial development also resulted in the central waterfront area being largely off-limits to the public ever since, despite the fact that the City and Port of Bellingham currently own the land. While it’s easy to feel separated from this legacy, it affects places Bellingham residents know and love. Even local favorite Boulevard Park along the Bellingham waterfront was home to a coal-fired gas plant that left heavy metals and fossil fuel byproducts.
The toxic contamination and heavily modified shoreline make the waterfront hazardous to young salmon, which need clean, protected, and connected nearshore habitat to grow and make it to the open ocean. The decline of eelgrass beds and gravely beaches which act as nurseries for forage fish (which salmon need to eat) have put an additional stress on our dwindling salmon populations. The massive Chinook salmon of the past, which make up 80% of endangered Southern Resident orcas’ food, have virtually disappeared; their numbers and size considerably diminished.
Bellingham’s waterfront gives our community a unique opportunity to make something positive from former industrial areas. As we’ve seen from the completed cleanup at Waypoint Park in 2018 — complete with some young salmon habitat, new businesses, and a playground — it can be done.
Sample of a virtual cleanup site tour:
The citizen-led cleanup initiative: Model Toxics Control Act
In 1988, Washingtonians passed a toxic waste cleanup law into effect, known as the Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA, pronounced “mott-cuh”), which streamlined the cleanup process and funded a large portion of our state’s more than 6,000 toxic cleanup sites with a tax on hazardous chemicals. Since then, demand for toxic cleanup funding has greatly expanded in communities statewide. Washington passed a law in 2019 that secures stable funding for MTCA — paid by polluters — to meet growing needs and fund core pollution prevention and cleanup programs.
Each of the 14 MTCA waterfront toxic sites in Whatcom County are in different stages of their cleanup process, but when completed, we’ll have a renewed waterfront that’s more livable and safe for humans, and restored critical habitat for native organisms. But this will only happen if we stay engaged in the cleanup process. Thankfully, the process has plenty of opportunities for you to speak up in favor of enhancing habitat, creating public parks, and whatever else you want YOUR waterfront to look like. Check the Take Action tab of this page.
Watch our brief explainer video about how our state’s cleanup process works:
For a more in-depth look at the MTCA Process, you can watch our two-part workshop videos:
Part 1: Contaminated Site Cleanup Process Overview
Part 2: Cleanup Actions and Public Comment on Contaminated Sites
Our vision for a clean, working Bellingham waterfront
This place belongs to our community, the residents of Bellingham and Whatcom County. The land is both privately and publicly owned, the cleanup is financed by our tax dollars, and the roads, sewers and other infrastructure will be paid for by residents. As taxpayers, we are financing this special place’s future. We’re helping guide the cleanup process so the end result meets the needs of the whole community, not just a few private industries. We advocate for a redeveloped waterfront that:
- Provides lots of public access and educational opportunities,
- Strengthens our local economy with green waterfront business and well-paying jobs, like local solar panel production,
- Provides living-wage, affordable housing,
- Creates viable habitat for salmon and forage fish that Tribal fisheries, the commercial fishing sector, and endangered orcas rely on,
- Includes infrastructure that recognizes the historical use of the land by local Tribes and treaty rights.
Get our e-newsletters to hear about cleanup site tours, chances to give input on cleanup plans, and more.