This week's "Gristle", by Cascadia Weekly Editor Tim Johnson, includes this electoral season's first substantive issue to appear in local print media (Related Post). In an excellent article called "The Affluent and the Effluent", Johnson describes the bizarre concurrence of the CIty's contemplation of expensive expansion at the Post Point sewage treatment plant while the Port races ahead to wreck the water treatment facility left behind in the wake of Georgia-Pacific's departure. I strongly recommend you read the article.
The Port's attempted theft of the utility of this public asset, to build an unneeded yacht basin, is a great story in itself (more below). It threatens to add another half a billion dollars of public costs to the half a billion already looking likely for the Port's waterfront project. It qualifies the whole endeavor for the moniker of "Bellingham's Billion Dollar Boondoggle".
Having followed these issues for a long time, there are a few additional points that could be added to the fine work of the Cascadia Weekly:
1) The technology under consideration by the City to forestall the inevitable expansion of the Post Point plant is called Chemically Enhanced Primary Treatment (CEPT). This is usually a flocculation process using ferric chloride or aluminum compounds in combination with various proprietary polymers to accelerate and improve clarifying the primary waste stream. These chemicals are expensive. They are used once and thrown away. In Bellingham's case, they will be screened out, dewatered and incinerated. Incineration occurs on a multiple hearth incinerator, where the heaps of sludge smolder to finish drying before finally burning and being reduced to ash. Hopefully the additional fumes will not bother the nearby heron rookery, Edgemore and Fairhaven neighborhood residents.
There's more to consider. A study published on the EPA's website, shows that CEPT changes the properties of both de-watered sludge and incinerator ash samples, concentrating trace metals and making them easily leached away. Both the ash and sludge demonstrated positive mutagenic properties in the presence of activating mammalian enzymes. That can't be good. I'm pretty sure that the City's consultants and staff didn't bring these points up during the presentation to the Council, because I'm guessing Tim Johnson would have perked up and added them to his story. Anyway, the burden of disposing of Bellingham's sewage sludge ash has a long and checkered history even before the addition of this complication. Better living through chemistry?
2) When Bellingham studied sewerage options in the early seventies, they invited G-P to participate in the Post Point system. G-P declined. Their decision to build their own system left Bellingham with a cost problem that delayed the upgrade to secondary treatment until the Feds, having grown impatient with Bellingham's recalcitrant non-compliance, ordered the improvement. There was a reason Post Point was selected. An oceanographic survey of the Bellingham-Samish estuary system had earlier concluded that mixing adequate to dilute the effluent from G-P's pulp and chemical operation occurred only south of a line between Post Point and Point Francis on Portage Island. G-P decided they would build their own system north of that line, in the badly mixed portion of the bay. Now, the public carries the cost of that decision.
It was apparently a bad decision because of the mercury, other metals and dioxins that G-P discharged. However, today's less toxic treatment needs might greatly benefit from the lagoon, its outfall, diffuser and State-approved mixing zone. County taxpayers and ratepayers would certainly benefit from not having to foot the bill to replace the functions and capacities the lagoon could provide.
3) The Cascadia Weekly article discusses the illegal forced main that runs under the Roeder Avenue bridge over Whatcom Creek. It mentions two pump stations, on either side, that have been "a concern of the City's for years." One of these, the C-Street pump station is the point of discharge for sewer overflows that threaten to overwhelm the Post Point Facility. During peak weather events, the storm system will sometimes overflow into the sanitary system, creating volumes in excess of the plant's capacity. Instead of making a huge stinking mess to clean up at Post Point, the City will occasionally dump the excess directly into the mouth of Whatcom Creek. This pump station is literally a stone's throw from the treatment basin that the Port wants to fix up for yachts. If the overflow were pumped into the treatment lagoon, it could be diffused and discharged in mid-bay, far from the sensitive nearshore habitat. This would be a huge environmental advantage - even without treatment.
4) The City and Port's agreement to allow surface storm water into the sanitary system runs counter to another federal consent decree that requires the City to systematically reduce the amount of inflow and infiltration. The CIty has even smoke tested sewer lines to detect where downspouts and foundation drains tie into the sanitary system. Homeowners found with these connections are required to upgrade them at their own expense. If that makes it seem like the Port is getting a special deal, well, they are. In contrast, many residents suffer sewage floods in their basements during weather extremes while the City hesitates to directly discharge sewage into Whatcom Creek at the C-Street pump station. The Port, with the City's consent, is set to grab the plum, hogging critical capacity while leaving many unfortunate citizens to literally mop up the crap.
5) These issues sound new to you? I've been ranting about them for years, but to no avail. Andrew Maron, the Port's SEPA official for the waterfront project's EIS scoping process wrote saying, "I decline to respond to your questions." In fact, the Port, also apparently with the City's consent, intentionally "gamed" the SEPA process specifically to avoid this review. Against the advice of the director of the Department of Ecology, and the letter of the SEPA statutes, the Port included their proposed marina in the No Action Alternative of the EIS. As such, the multi-million dollar non-action has not been subject to the level of review required to analyze these costs. The Port is bound and determined to have a new marina for extra large boats, and they are completely uninterested in the costs to the public. Sure, this is cheating - but it's just the start!
After successfully avoiding these issues for years, the Port recently threw a tantrum at the City, threatening to pull out of their partnership on the waterfront over some trivial matters concerning where roads might go and which buildings to save. In the parlance, this is known as a red herring. After a time, Mayor Pike and then Port Director Jim Darling engineered a kiss-and-make-up joint session of the Port Commission and City Council. The respective legislative bodies jointly adopted a "Framework and Assumptions" for continuing the waterfront effort. Besides the fact that this constituted an illegal revison of scope for the waterfront review, it also yielded a remarkable result. At the end of their joint meeting on April 20th, the Marina emerged on the top of the list of features to be included in the Preferred Alternative for final review. But since there was no invitation to the public to comment on the revision of scope, pesky questions about the value of the lagoon to serve various public needs have still not been added to the review. In any event, it is as rare as it is illogical to have a huge, expensive marina project in both the No Action and Preferred Alternatives of the same EIS. It underscores the additional problem of letting the developer, the Port, act as lead agent for the environmental review of their own projects. The fox is in the hen house!
The truth is that the lagoon is already ideally suited for continued industrial treatment. Without water treatment, the 60" stainless steel industrial water supply to the site becomes useless. Without industrial water supply and treatment capacity, we forever foreclose our ability to attract, retain or expand businesses that can provide good, family-wage jobs. That is a huge, possibly incalculable cost. What city would not at least try to market surplus water and treatment capacity to recruit good jobs? Bellingham! Talk about subdued excitement! Then follows the cost to the public of expanding the capacity of the Post Point Facility. After that, we expect that the State will soon require treatment of stormwater from urbanized areas to protect the nearshore habitat and hopefully prevent the collapse of the Puget Sound's biological communities. Where will we accomplish this and how much will it cost? Then come the combined sewer overflows already directly discharged into the nearshore habitat. How much good could we do with a better system than that?
The lagoon could be simply subdivided, or more carefully remodeled to house a large number of clarifiers and reactors and manage several different treatment regimes. Bellingham could be a model of environmental responsibility - but not without asking and answering the annoying questions that elected officials of both the City and Port of Bellingham have so fastidiously avoided.
Are slips for a few forty to sixty foot yachts really as important as jobs and the environment? They are to the Port, who will stingily benefit from fat moorage revenues while the public gets stuck with the costs of Bellingham's Billion Dollar Boondoggle.
Fortunately, you can easily say no to this travesty by simply not selecting Port incumbents when your primary ballots arrive this week. We have plenty of good challengers.