Wendy Harris wrote this guest article.
Bellingham continues to march forward with its proposal to construct a half-mile overwater walkway above Bellingham Bay, (which is actually designated a bridge under federal regulations, since it involves a structure that may restrict the ability to navigate public waters.) The City Planning Department and the Parks Department have forwarded a Conditional Use Permit and a Shoreline Development Permit to the City Hearing Examiner, who is keeping the public record open upon until January 6th, 2011. If the City permits are approved by the Hearing Examiner, the City will proceed as quickly as possible with construction of this project.
It is clear the Planning Department and the Parks Department have rationalized the construction of the overwater bridge based on the time and resources that have already been expended and available funding. This project has been planned for many years, and it was conceived with the best intentions. However, I believe the project design has now lagged behind both best available science and our current financial problems. Therefore, important facts are being overlooked.
At the forefront of these concerns are public health and safety issues associated with a pedestrian bridge being constructed on and over what is, essentially, a chain of toxic remediation sites. The Cornwall Bridge is also located within and over an area of high seismic activity, high landslide risk, and within a 100 year flood plan zone.
The Bridge originates at Boulevard Park, on a site being investigated under a DOE Agreed Order for soil and groundwater contamination related to the South State Street Manufactured Gas Plant site. The Bridge terminates at the Cornwall Avenue Landfill site, which is being investigated under a DOE Agreed Order for contamination associated with a former municipal landfill. Part of the land within the project area may have been created with contaminated fill materials from dredged soils from the Whatcom Creek Waterway. Fill on adjacent land was contaminated from the by-products of the manufacture of coal gas.
The bridge crosses over DNR owned aquatic lands within a designated natural recovery area subject to cleanup and long-term monitoring pursuant to the Whatcom Waterway consent decree. Contaminated dredge soils present in the aquatic portions of the site are listed as Category 4A impaired sediments subject to a TMDL. This overwater bridge requires placement of 96 pilings, each of which has a 26 inch diameter, many of which will be driven into this impaired sediment, likely causing the contamination that has settled in-soil to be stirred up and dispersed into an already impaired body of water.
Moreover, at a time when the City is experiencing financial distress resulting in budget cuts and employee lay-offs, a $7 million dollar overwater trail seems excessive, particularly when less expensive land-based shoreline trail options are available. Finally, the cumulative environmental impacts from overwater structures can be particularly egregious, degrading water quality, and destroying fish and wildlife habitat. In this case, it is known there will be harmful impacts to federally endangered salmon species.
To proceed with construction of an overwater bridge over contaminated and geologically hazardous lands, prior to remediation, and despite knowledge of the environmental impacts, does not protect public health and safety. There is no justification for construction of a trail in such an unsuitable location when there is a great need for additional trails in many other parts of the city.