This excerpt is from the December 1997 issue of Whatcom Watch.
by Nicole Oliver
On November 18, 1997, a pilot project to clean up the contaminated sediments in Bellingham Bay was unveiled to the public in an information fair at the Bellingham Cruise Terminal.
The Bellingham Bay Demonstration Pilot Project or the Baywide Pilot is a cooperative partnership to streamline cleanup of contaminated sediments in Bellingham Bay. By bringing together the many government and industry players who have a stake in the bay, and the residents and businesses of the area, improvement in the overall health of Bellingham Bay can be made faster and at lower cost. The goals of the Baywide pilot project are to:
• Stop ongoing contamination at the source
• Clean up contaminated marine sediments and find suitable disposal sites
• Restore habitat for fish, birds and other aquatic resources
• Plan for future aquatic and shoreline land uses
History of the Baywide Project
In 1996 federal and state agencies formed the Cooperative Sediment Management Program to explore new and better ways to clean up contaminated sediments throughout Puget Sound. They included Washington Depts. of Ecology, Natural Resources and Transportation, Puget Sound Water Quality Action Team, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Working together, these agencies proposed a demonstration pilot to develop sediment cleanup priorities in an urban embayment of Puget Sound in partnership with local governments, businesses, and citizens. The agencies set aside $700,000 in grant money for local government to help fund the pilot.
Local participants in the Bellingham Bay Action Program expressed strong interest in hosting the demonstration pilot. They are the Port of Bellingham, City of Bellingham, Whatcom County Health Department and Georgia Pacific West, Inc.
The combined scope includes strategic environmental planning, contaminant source control, contaminated site cleanup, sediment disposal, infill property development and effective habitat management.
Contamination Sediment Sources
Efforts to address contamination problems in urban bays throughout Puget Sound have been underway since the early 1980s. Some contaminants have been found to pose a threat to human health and aquatic organisms that live in the sediments.
Significant current projects include:
• Georgia Pacific and the Washington State Department of Ecology are investigating the Whatcom Waterway to measure levels of mercury and other contaminants which exist in the sediments, where they are located and what the options are for cleanup.
• The Cornwall Avenue landfill is being examined by the Port of Bellingham, the city, and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources to determine how the environment may be affected.
Contaminated Sediments Disposal
It is anticipated that cleanup efforts in Bellingham Bay will require the excavation and removal of large volumes of contaminated sediments. The safe disposal of sediments requires careful planning.
Many sites have been analyzed for costs, benefits and logistics, and the one that stands out most prominently seems to be the Cornwall Avenue landfill site. Situated at the end of Cornwall Avenue adjacent to Georgia-Pacific, this historic landfill is presently being eroded daily by tides, and is in need of remediation by law. The proposed site would involve building a large berm out in the water, filling the area with the dredged sediment, and capping it with clean material, creating an extension of upland out into the bay.
Aquatic Land Use in the Bay
Bellingham Bay supports many uses — commerce and shipping, fishing and other natural resources uses, and recreational activities. Much of the bay itself is owned in trust for the people of Washington by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. The shoreline is used by a variety of business and government organizations, often under leases from the Department of Natural Resources and the Port of Bellingham.
To view the bay as a whole, cleanup activities, habitat restoration plans, port and other industrial developments, and shoreline activities must be closely coordinated. It is this integrated approach that makes the Bayside Pilot a better way to go — bringing all of the parties together to create a true bayside plan.
Next Steps in the Process
The Bellingham Bay Work Group will package alternative approaches addressing sediment cleanup, control of contaminant sources, habitat protection and restoration, and aquatic shoreline land-use planning. An environmental impact statement under the State Environmental Policy Act will analyze the different alternatives, evaluate their relative environmental impacts, and point the way to future actions and decisions in Bellingham Bay.
Scoping for the environmental impact statement will happen in early 1998, and the draft environmental impact statement will be available for public review next summer.
Nicole Oliver is a former Whatcom Watch editor. She is currently development manager for the Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department and chair of the Whatcom County Planning Commission.