Citizen Kayakers Investigate Discharges into Bellingham Bay

To celebrate 25 years of publishing Whatcom Watch, we will be printing excerpts from 20 years ago. The below excerpt is from the July 1996 issue of Whatcom Watch.

by Erika Wittmann

“No one has a clear idea of actually how many storm drains there are,” states Carl Weimer of RE Sources heading up the new Kayak Watch program for Bellingham Bay. Teaming with the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance out of Seattle, Weimer had been “trying to branch out from recycling into stream ecology, water and runoff issues.” He read about the Puget Soundkeeper kayak program, which was looking for a project based in Bellingham to add to the Puget Sound Pollution Control Network, (which includes partners in all urban bases) so “the two went hand in hand perfectly.”

On June 13, B.J. Cummings of the Soundkeepers “came up, and we cruised some of the waterfront. We got to see an osprey, and seals, just right under the GP dock,” said Weimer. The tour was also for the purpose of collecting water samples and beginning to map storm drains, pipes that discharge waste products from various businesses as well as the mill, and various discharges that “aren’t even through pipes at all,” said Weimer. The two locations from which they were able to take samples were, as far as Cummings could tell, “hot water streaming right out into the bay, which in and of itself is harmful to sea life,” especially directly around the pipes, when “the water has not yet had time to sufficiently mix and cool.” In this case the samples, tested for both pH and toxicity, came back ok. “It looks like all we’re dealing with here is a temperature problem.” At least for those two sources, at least for now.

Once they determine the sources of all the runoff, as in the case of hot water pouring from a GP hydromodification point source, they take their results, if any toxins are found, to the Department of Ecology at the mill and “bring an awareness.” After that, Cummings doesn’t think “it will be necessary to proceed further.” But if so, they will know what to do.

“Most businesses are in compliance,” says Weimer. However, without any kind of a current map from the city public works department, the Kayak Watch program is left to their own devices and paperwork determining what does and does not have a permit. “Storm water and parking lot runoff is the biggest problem,” and biggest polluter of Bellingham Bay. Weimer says he had been out before where at one location, “they were washing something from the docks,” that he couldn’t identify.

The Puget Soundkeeper’s main goal as a “citizen watchdog and advocacy group,” according to Cummings, “is for zero toxic discharge into the Sound. It is a step by step process to find the source and bring them into compliance with the Clean Water Act.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s data for October 1991-September 1992, 10.6 percent of Washington’s major industrial and municipal facilities were in significant noncompliance with Clean Water permits. It seems a bit of a shame that we have to have citizens spend their life’s work as environ=mental police, doesn’t it?

The Kayak Watch program volunteers have their work cut out for them. Many areas along Bellingham Bay still need to be mapped and verified in compliance. Right now they have only around seven active people to take on this mountainous task, and definitely “need more people to get involved,” says Weimer. The bigger the group, the more they can see.” A sample of training for the Kayak Watch program follows.

Determining a violation at an industrial discharge may require reviewing the permit requirements. If you suspect a violation, report the conditions you observed and the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance can investigate the requirements under their discharge permit.

Please remember to follow all rules of good kayaking when on your own. When possible, try to find the source of whatever pollution you see (and remember trespassing laws). Please report whatever you find regardless, to RE Sources.

The Puget Soundkeeper Alliance’s purpose is “to serve as stewards for the protection and enhancement of Puget Sound through education, advocacy, monitoring and celebration.” The alliance was formed in 1984 as a coalition of individuals and organizations responding to studies identifying serious pollution problems in Elliott Bay. One of their victories was the creation of the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority to develop and oversee a management plan to protect the health of the Puget Sound ecosystem. Since introducing the Steward program in 1990, (not unlike the Beach Watchers program, only from the water.) they have brought a stop to the annual spill of 48 million gallons of municipal sewage and non-compliance by the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. In 1995, the Soundkeeper program stopped ongoing, illegal discharges from six industrial sites and a resort through use of the citizen suit provision of the Clean Water Act. ….


Editor’s Note: The following update is by Lee First.

“A lot has changed since 1996, and much is the same. For starters, Kayak Watch no longer exists. In 1999, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities hired Robyn du Pré to become the first North Sound Baykeeper. Following in her amazing footsteps were Wendy Steffensen, Matt Krogh, and myself, in 2016.

North Sound Baykeeper is a member of the Waterkeeper Alliance. It was founded in 1999, there are now 293 organizations (Coastkeeper, Deltakeeper, Lakekeeper, Riverkeeper, Soundkeeper, etc.) around the world working for fishable, swimmable, drinkable waters, everywhere. Locally, our biggest threat to water quality is still “non-point” pollution — which flows off our streets, parking lots, and farm fields — ending up in rivers and marine waters, carrying pollution and harmful bacteria.

Industries that discharge stormwater are required to have permits, and since 2007 — many more businesses are covered by these permits. The Department of Ecology oversees compliance — but we’d all benefit from increased compliance and enforcement.
The city of Bellingham has a permit to discharge municipal stormwater. All discharges are mapped, and there’s even an impressive public mapping system so all of us can learn about stormwater infrastructure.

As your North Sound Baykeeper, I maintain a pollution hotline: 360-220-0556 — please use it. If you want to join our small army of paddlers: we regularly patrol streams, rivers, and marine waters to document pollution, search for derelict fishing nets, collect trash, and look for unpermitted discharges. I’d love your help. Please email me to sign up!”