Little Hong Kong by the Bay

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Most understand that the reason the port and city went through such gyrations over so many years (with so little result) was to wear citizens down until officials could replace our Waterfront Futures vision with their little Hong Kong on the Bay fantasy. Few understand that Harcourt is just like the derelict Horizon ship tied to the derelict international shipping pier to create the illusion of a functional port. Harcourt is intended to keep things tied up in complicated deals and/or litigation until the roughly $30 million in taxes we put into the AIG insurance policy has matured to a level sufficient to cover remediation AND make AIG money. That's why we will keep studying, looking for the ever-lower cost remedial alternatives the port agreed to accept.

So, anyone still interested in an expanded commission?

How about a crowdsource funding campaign to hire a crack team of professionals to help thoroughly dissect the mess? Many are tired of fighting the port, or even trying to follow their shenanigans. Here's a proposal. Who's got talent? Who's got interest? Let's pay someone to do the dirty work. That's what the port does! We can tax ourselves through crowdsource. The port taxes us to do harm, why not tax ourselves to right the wrongs?


Bellingham Waterfront Public Interest Education Project ~
Exploring the Costs and Benefits of a Public vs Private Waterfront

Goals: 1) Investigate the Port of Bellingham's peculiar management of Bellingham's newly consolidated public waterfront, 2) Produce the highest quality information for citizens, auditors and prosecutors, and 3) Inventory issues that might be litigated or prosecuted. Estimated Cost (Phase I - III): $________ dollars.

Phase I: Fund a professional forensic public disclosure and analysis of public process, principles and procedures pertaining to the waterfront plan. Provide volunteer public interest opportunities for research and reporting.

Phase II: Fund professional public education exhibits and reports for citizens, auditors and prosecutors, including recommendations in the public's best interest.

Phase III: Fund professional education of legislative delegates, auditors and prosecutors, and explore civil litigation opportunities to assure an honest environmental clean-up and a continuing public waterfront.

Background: In 2001, Georgia-Pacific West ceased its Bellingham pulp, paper and integrated chemical operations. The Port of Bellingham bought G-P's waterfront land and environmental liabilities for $10, put almost $30 million dollars into an AIG environmental insurance account, agreed to adopt the lowest cost remedial alternative and promised not to prospect for further liabilities, even though approximately 500 tons of mercury remain unaccounted for and numerous unregulated G-P landfills remain unexplored.

What we know so far:

- The port intentionally managed the waterfront environmental review to prevent evaluating the benefits of using G-P's wastewater treatment facility for water treatment. They insist it become a yacht basin to complement upscale private waterfront condominiums. The port has 500 empty slips in its moorage inventory.

- Eliminating G-P's treatment capacity orphans a large city-owned stainless steel industrial water supply and inhibits our ability to support jobs. It forecloses treatment options for industrial effluent and urban run-off. Municipalities will soon be mandated to install stormwater treatment. The city is currently spending $200 million expanding it's wastewater treatment plant and is out of room. Future capacity will come at much higher costs.

- The port doctored public records, changing consultant estimates by over $21 million to make their preferred marina plan look falsely better than alternatives. Port staff admitted to this revision only after it was exposed in local publications.

- Fourteen public stakeholder agencies spent 10 years developing nine remedial alternatives for the removal of between 160,000 to 1,900,00 cubic yards of contaminated sediments. Within a month of buying the G-P site, the port unilaterally imposed a tenth plan - Alternative 'K' - a capping plan that leaves most toxic sediments in place.

- Despite more than a decade having passed, almost no clean-up has occurred. Some analysts suggest that while the insurance policy remains unspent, AIG can afford to provide 'encouragements' to those who help delay. They suggest a forensic financial analysis of key port staff is warranted.

- The port insists on selling new waterfront lands for private development. They propose six million square feet of mixed-use, commercial/retail/residential development on the waterfront immediately adjacent to downtown. Only one million square feet at a local mall put downtown into a disastrous economic tailspin for more than two decades. The port has avoided comparing the county-wide benefits of a generous, less developed public waterfront.

- The port continues to change project parameters and order ongoing studies in a blinding fog of confusing public participation deadlines that have overwhelmed most concerned citizens. The documents are extremely technical and circularly self-referential. Qualified, professional scientific review and analysis is needed.

- Port-produced exhibits for public decision-makers have systematically shifted over time to obfuscate, conceal and minimize environmental liabilities, to eliminate earlier public priorities and to encourage maximum development.

- The port and city sponsored a thorough public participation process, the Waterfront Futures Group, a citizen committee that produced well-framed public interest policies and principles. These were buried and ignored, replaced with a new “Framework and Assumptions,” negotiated in private, radically expanding the project scope, but without affording the public opportunity to comment.

- The port hired the world's preeminent waterfront redevelopment consultants, whose recommendations for a generous public waterfront they also completely ignored.

- A new port director, Charlie Sheldon, who questioned the wisdom of selling the waterfront for maximum development, and tried to steer the agency back toward more traditional port services and activities, was summarily dismissed in a sudden, notoriously opaque and procedurally questionable move that prompted a significant public response.

- Citizens mounted an initiative to increase the number of members on the Bellingham Port Commission in hopes of broader representation and better public outcomes. The Commission offered to help by sponsoring the measure. They adopted it in an advertised meeting to much public acclaim but subsequently reversed it without notice, disingenuously subdividing it into an impossible two-stage, if-then measure. Indignant proponents refused support, but it still nearly passed.

- The port pretends to operate an international shipping terminal. They moor a derelict ship at a derelict pier and pretend it is a newly expanded shipping terminal even though they earlier petitioned Congress to abandon the federal waterway, rendering the facility utterly useless. Nevertheless, they have produced new professional marketing brochures and the facility supports good executive jobs - though no one bothers to respond to shipping inquiries.

- The city will provide hundreds of millions of dollars in street and utility infrastructure, usually provided by developers, at taxpayer expense to support property sales that will only benefit the port, and which could harm the city's tax base.

Preliminary Conclusion:

Overall, the public will bear remarkable costs but it is not clear what benefit they will receive. The port is operating like a private property development company, not a public agency. Gaming the environmental review, falsifying documents, hiding liabilities, subdividing projects, obstructing a citizen initiative, pretending to operate a port, burying details under clouds of reports and dragging the process out for over a decade - all suggest a process rife with fraud and deception, and possibly indictable criminal offenses.

It is in the public's best interest to leave no stone unturned in evaluating the hidden details of the port's unfolding plan and to educate themselves about the true costs. Bellingham will never have a public waterfront or a functional port if the port succeeds in selling it for upscale development unrelated to port activities. This is potentially a billion dollar boondoggle that only the power of daylight can bring to right.

If 1,000 people - less than 2% of Bellingham's population - donate $___ dollars, citizens could finally have the resources and information to become a force that can no longer be ignored in determining Bellingham's waterfront futures.

About Tip Johnson

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Tip Johnson is a longtime citizen interest advocate with a record of public achievement projects for good government and the environment. A lifelong student of government, Tip served two terms [...]

Comments by Readers

John Blethen

Jan 30, 2015

Good summary. There is a major institutional problem with the Port Until the Port Commission is changed either to two Port Commissioners interested in change or better five members ,additional money spent talking about the waterfront is a waste of time in my estimation.  We have been over and over this topic with some really great ideas and the Port has been able to manipulate the results . Most often the outcome was controlled bymaking the process dis-coherent the WFF group was not included in the Water Front Advisory Group and no members of the Council or the Planning Commission were included in the on going “evolution” of the Plan after visioning.  The City paid employees appeared powerless to affect outcome.  Somewhere along the line the City needs to say “pay your own infrastructure cost”.  As it stands we citizens are on the hook for several hundred million dollars of costs which will never be re-coped through property taxes. At this point, in terms of investment, City money would be better spent on Samish way, downtown or in the Fountain District.  Thanks for the effort!  I look forward to change on the waterfront but I am not holding my breath!


Terry Wechsler

Feb 01, 2015

The notion of crowd funding and stopping action the community doesn’t want is not theoretical. Residents of Point Roberts and Tsawwassen did it. There were only about 6 people at the heart of that movement, and they raised enough to hire two law firms, one here and one in DC. Their fight continues, but so far, they’re winning.


Dick Conoboy

Feb 03, 2015

My check for $100 to start your fund is sitting on my desk.  To whom do I make it payable and to what address?


George Dyson

Mar 02, 2015

The true insanity (among so many insanities) is that while communities all over the world are making enormous sacrifices to *consolidate* public waterfront, knowing the incalculable (think “highline”) benefits this brings, we, for some inexplicable reason, have spent the last ten years trying to *dismantle* our public waterfront, by selling it in bits and pieces to friends of friends. No takers! Time for Plan B. Count me in.


Aaron Brand

Aug 14, 2015

Covering and leaving the contaminants is always going to be the least expensive option, so if the port has been saying that they will choose the least expensive option then it should come as no surprise that that is what will happen. There is also plenty of evidence to show that this option also provides a better solution than most processes, which would stir up the dirt and contaminants and potentially expose those contaminants to the bay and the people and other creatures living in and around it. As for the missing mercury, i know that research was done in the 1970s by Roy Carpenter, and others, about heavy metals in the sediments in the bay. I’m guessing that the mercury is buried in the bay under decades of sediments washed down hill by the Nooksack (and likely to some extent the Fraser).

There is no rule that says the Port of Bellingham (which is a “real” port, after all) must do what Northwest Citizen says the citizens want (I don’t remember seeing this “what citizens envisioned” drawing and would not support that vision myself). I, for one, would love to see private industry take over about half of the land.

Making money off the moorage fees of a derelict ship, while not all that active a port function, is a money-maker after all. And there have to be people around to make sure the vessel doesn’t drift away or move and cause damage to itself and other parts of the port property- hence a need for administrative employees, etc. Also, there are other Port of Bellingham facilities, including the following: Bellingham Cruise Terminal; Bellingham Shipping Terminal; Blaine Harbor; Squalicum Harbor; Bellingham International Airport; Fairhaven Transportation Station; Port Administration/Commission Chamber; Maintenance Office.

I wonder if there could be formed another group of “experts” that would agree with Mr. Johnson’s assessment of the situation. Why don’t we start an occupy movement along with the crowdsource funding. If we can get a few dozen people down to the granary to put kayaks in the water, are there enough port employees to stop us from accessing our waterfront?