Sunday, February 24, 2013

ASB to Marina and State Toxics Account

This post falls into the long, wonky and local (Bellingham) category. It also has a bit of an opionion to it and I close with an editorial note. For an overview of the site in question see Aerial view.

A couple of weeks ago I noted that in conversations I have had with several supposedly in-the-know folks (elected policy makers that I would prefer not to name at this point) indicated that the former Georgia-Pacific wastewater treatment lagoon (ASB) on the shores of Bellingham Bay was not going to be converted into a marina asb-to-marina-look-past-personalities. I have since indirectly been told that the marina from the ASB is 50 years in the future" or "way off in the future".

Contrary to those statements, Washington State Department of Ecology has a public release this past month (Publication Number 13-09-121) stating "Phase two construction is scheduled for 2016". Phase two is excavating out the ASB and converting it to a marina. Somebody is wrong. Or perhaps plans published by Ecology do not mean anything.

What does appear to be accurate is that the Port of Bellingham will be proceeding with a cleanup of a portion of the Whatcom Waterway this year. The schedule is to hire a contractor in June and begin cleanup in July. This is phase one of the cleanup of the waterway. Completing phase one as currently planned is premised on a plan that includes converting the ASB into a marina.

The phase one cleanup will involve dredging sediments contaminated with dioxins/furans along with a touch of mercury and other stuff from the shipping terminal and from the very upper tidal estuary. There will also be some shoreline work stabilizing slopes and bulkheads. The dredged sediment will be disposed of at a yet to be named landfill site designed to handle just such material. The estimate is that 159,000 cubic yards of sediment will be dredged. Additional areas of contaminated sediment in the waterway will be covered with clean sediment.  The cost estimate for this phase one portion of the cleanup is estimated to be $25 million.

The original Port of Bellingham plans for the sediment in phase one developed by the Port back in 2007 called for open water disposal. That is the sediment was to be dredged onto a barge and taken to a location that was less environmentally sensitive and dumped back into the water. However, that will no longer be allowed due to a change in open water disposal regulations regarding dioxins/furans. Regulations that were actively being reviewed back in 2007.

Before the original Port plans were developed, Georgia-Pacific had planned to dredge the sediments in question along with a lot more sediment in the Whatcom Waterway and dispose of the sediment in an upland site located immediately adjacent to the Whatcom Waterway. This upland site was the GP wastewater treatment lagoon (aerated stabilization basin or ASB). Ecology approved this plan as the preferred alternative for cleaning up the contaminated sediments in Bellingham Bay and the Whatcom Waterway. The estimated cost for removing essentially all of the tainted sediment: $23 million.

This approved preferred cleanup was killed cleanup-death-of-alernative-J. The Port of Bellingham wanted to convert the ASB into a marina instead. Years of negotiation and analysis leading to the Alternative J approach came to an abrupt end. The GP cleanup plan for the waterway and the bay can be viewed as more protective versus the Port's plan that involves less dredging and a reliance on capping the tainted sediments in place. The GP Alternative J plan was also a lot less expensive. As noted the entire waterway and bay cleanup under Alternative J was estimated to be $23 million; whereas the Ports' phase one cleanup alone exceeds that cost.

The reason the Port's cleanup plan for the waterway and bay are so expensive relative to the original more protective cleanup plan is that Port wants to convert the ASB into marina. The Port already successfully got congress to remove a portion of the waterway as a federal channel in order to avid the need for dredging (by the way this was a reversal of the Port's previous position of the early 2000s when the Port insisted that GP dredge the waterway to federal channel depth). It makes no sense to claim that the ASB will not be made converted into a marina yet continue with plans and cleanups all driven by the assumption that it will be.

As it stands all plans and documents on the Bellingham Bay waterfront still include converting the ASB into a marina. The behind the scenes statements by elected officials that there are no plans to build the marina in the ASB or that it simply does not pencil out are at odds with the current cleanup approach that is very nearly about to be implemented.

There is however a broader state-wide issue at play here. How is the Port paying for this much more expensive cleanup approach? First the Port does have a chunk of money via an insurance fund associated with the site having been contaminated by GP. That pays for half the costs of the the phase one cleanup. The second half is covered by the State Toxics Control Account. These funds are generated by a tax on petroleum products. The idea is to have a fund to help cleanup and prevent pollution. The Whatcom Waterway and Bellingham Bay cleanup approach and the use of this fund raises questions about how these funds are prioritized. And it puts Ecology staff charged with managing these funds in a tough spot particularly when political pressures are brought to bare (a future post).

Turning the ASB into a marina will be very costly because before sea water will be allowed to flow into the ASB, the entire basin will need to be excavated with significant portions landfilled. Early cost estimates are on the order of $75 million based on previous Port documents and subtracting out the phase one cleanup part.

Editorial Note:

The planning for a major redevelopment on the Bellingham waterfront is complex. It also generates lots of passion and alas arguments. I have never felt any particular passion about any of the various ideas: saving or not saving historic old buildings, street layouts, where the rail tracks are located, even the zoning does not get me excited one way or the other. A new marina seems to be a reasonable idea for a waterfront and in fact may be far better than some other ideas that have been suggested for the waterfront.

One might presume that I am opposed to the construction of an additional marina on the Bellingham Bay waterfront. I have no objection to a new marina. But I will say that I do object to the use of the State Toxics Account to partially fund the marina construction. I view the scheme as deviating greatly from the purpose of that fund and I am already not comfortable with the willingness to fund a much more costly cleanup approach that has been driven by the conversion of the ASB into a marina.


Scott Schuldt said...

I have a dim view on marinas. Building boat parking lots in the littoral zones has got to be one of the worst uses for open water that I can think of. Marinas should be limited to work boats and frequent users. As much as I hate the appearance of on-shore boat storage, it is more realistic. From my own extensive time paddling near Seattle marinas, most of those boats seem to sit at the dock 340 or more days/year...poor use of the life rich shallows of open water, which isn't so life rich when boats are parked over it.

Unknown said...

That 2016 date is there for a reason -- a big reason. The Port's belief in the market for the "Clean Ocean Marina" was so fervent that the ASB was specifically called *out* of the "insurance" agreement -- lest the whole grand scheme go south from the outset over the realization that the "Clean Ocean Marina" would leave the rest of us with a very expensive contaminated mess that will haunt Bellingham for decades if not centuries--very, very far from what was promised under Alternative J, when reasonable folks at Georgia-Pacific were deciding how best to fold the tent and leave.

The uninsured liability for the ASB could spell deep, deep trouble for POB. But AIG's liability for unanticipated stricter regulation of dioxins has them in deep trouble too. It's a marriage made in heaven: put the dioxins in the ASB (absolving AIG of the upland disposal costs) and thereby cleanse the Port of otherwise crippling liability for cleaning out the ASB.

Guess who pays the bill!

Dan McShane said...

Thanks George for the comments on this. It has been a hard issue for Bellingham and alas the whole county. I am not a big private sector good - public sector bad, but in this case I long for the days when GP owned the waterfront - lots of jobs and they worked cooperatively on cleanup plans. Yes the caused the contamination, but that took place long before Nixon and the Clean Water Act and they were prepared to solve the problem far better that the solutions coming from our port.