The Central Waterfront in the midst of a cleanup process

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The Central Waterfront Cleanup Site (site) is a 51-acre property that’s in the middle of a cleanup process. The site is being cleaned up in accordance with the Washington State Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA). MTCA is a citizen-mandated law enacted through a voter’s initiative and is the state counterpart to the federal Superfund law. The Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) is the lead agency responsible for the implementation of MTCA. The Port of Bellingham and the City of Bellingham are also actively engaged in this process. The Port is the major landowner, and since the City owned and operated a large municipal landfill within this site, they’re responsible for part of the cleanup costs.

RE Sources recently offered a public tour of the area, in conjunction with staff from the Department of Ecology and the Port of Bellingham. RE Sources has a long history of working to increase public participation during the MTCA process. We’ve held numerous forums over the years, educating citizens about the importance of getting involved and learning about the major cleanup process that is happening along our waterfront. We always study the cleanup documents and develop technical comments if we believe that the cleanup plans are not protective enough.

During this most recent tour, we walked around the site, learned about the history of industrial operations along the waterfront, and were able to get our questions about the legacy pollution and cleanup plans answered from the key staff who are involved in this cleanup. Later that evening, most of us returned to attend a public meeting, where we learned even more. Here are the highlights…

Before the passage of the 1972 Clean Water Act, industries all over the country operated without pollution discharge limits, directly into waterways. The result was a lot of pollution that today we call legacy pollution. A lot has changed since then. Today, the industries that pollute operate under strict pollution discharge permits called National Pollution Discharge and Elimination System Permits (NPDES) that are required by the Clean Water Act. These permits allow only a certain amount of pollution to be discharged, steps are required to be taken to prevent pollution, and discharges must be sampled and reported. We’ve learned that preventing pollution is a lot cheaper and easier than cleaning it up.

The first stop on the tour was along Hilton Avenue. This part of our waterfront looked drastically different back in the 1880s when the first sawmills were built on pilings along the natural shoreline. Before this area was developed, the shoreline was comprised of shallow mudflats and extensive eelgrass beds. These offered a surplus of food and protection to juvenile salmon as they left nearby rivers and adjusted to salt water in preparation for a journey out to sea. In the area that is now Hilton Avenue, a variety of industrial operations started operating in this area once dredging of the I&J Waterway began. The Waterway was dredged for shipping, and the dredge spoils were placed on the land. The industries included log rafting, truck dispatching, boat maintenance, bulk fuel terminals, foundry operations, seafood processing and distribution, underground fuel storage tanks, and rock crushing. The legacy pollution from these activities resulted in soil contaminated with petroleum, volatile organic compounds, metals, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

If you’re like me – the history of development in this area is a hook that makes me interested in the cleanup process. The next part of the tour was of the former Roeder Avenue Landfill area, which was used by the City of Bellingham as a garbage dump between 1965 to 1974. It was very common for all the cities in the Puget Sound Lowlands to dump garbage in and along the shorelines, and often right into the water. Garbage was fill, and the fill enabled more industries to operate. The legacy pollution that remains in this part of the site consists of groundwater contaminated with volatile organic compounds, metals, polycyclic aromatic compounds, and methane gas.

Modern landfills are totally different than the landfills that were operated along Bellingham’s waterfront. Today, modern landfills are constructed with impermeable liners and leak detection systems to prevent pollution. They contain leachate collection systems and usually are outfitted with methane gas collection systems that generate electricity. Leachate is polluted water that has percolated through garbage and leached out some of the constituents.

Once landfills are full, there are state laws that require certain steps to be taken to cap the garbage and to ensure that leachate or methane isn’t escaping. According to the staff on the tour, this landfill was closed in accordance with the appropriate laws that were in place at the time.

Next, we made a brief stop along the Aerated Stabilization Basin (ASB), which is on the waterward part of the site. It’s a large lagoon that was constructed in 1979 to contain liquid waste from the Georgian Pacific site. The ASB is part of the Whatcom Waterway Cleanup Site, an adjacent cleanup site, which is undergoing a separate cleanup process.

The last stop was near the terminus of C Street. In the past, the industries that operated here included bulk fuel storage and loading, tanker truck loading racks, a marine vessel loading dock, gravel-hauling, and coal storage and stockpiling. Legacy pollution from these activities have been identified in soil and groundwater, and include petroleum, metals, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

The good news is that a lot of cleanup work has already been done. About $10 million has already been spent on cleanup work to address contamination in several areas of this site. Previous cleanup projects, also known as interim actions, have included removal of contaminated soil and sediment, construction of an interlocking sheet-pile containment wall, installation of stormwater collection and treatment, and construction of large buildings and impermeable surfaces. These prevent contact with remaining contaminated soil and garbage that remains underground.

A document called a draft Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study (RI/FS) has just been issued for this site. The RI section of this report describes all the steps that have been taken to characterize the site’s contamination. The FS section describes six proposed remedial alternatives for cleanup, and evaluates them in terms of long-term effectiveness, permanence, and cost, and proposes a preferred cleanup option (alternative A).

You can review the cleanup documents at the Bellingham Public Library, the Bellingham Department of Ecology Field Office, or the Bellevue Department of Ecology Office. You can also read the cleanup documents online

The proposed cleanup alternative includes installation of impermeable cap (pavement), a physical diversion wall that will ensure that leachate does not migrate off-site, targeted groundwater treatment, engineering controls for vapors and/or landfill gas, removal of highly contaminated soils from a “hotspot” area near C Street, and groundwater monitoring to ensure natural processes continue to reduce levels of contamination.

We urge you to read a fact sheet for this cleanup site, which is located here.

You, the public, have an important part to play in the cleanup process. The comment period is open, and Ecology is accepting comments on the proposed cleanup alternative until November 1, 2017. The next steps for this site will be finalizing the RI/FS, and selection of a legal agreement for public review. In 2019, site design activities will be completed, and cleanup will begin.