A recent Northwest Citizen article by Doug Karlberg, asserting that the port tampered with consultant data to make the ASB facility the least expensive option for a marina, caused quite a stir. (See Smoking Gun: Fraud and Deception, from November 18, 2013). The article contained a chart reflecting the adjustments to the consultant’s cost data.
Several citizens, most prominently Bob Burr, made repeated requests before the Bellingham City Council and the port commission for a public explanation of this suspicious-looking action. The requests were first made before the city and port approved the waterfront district sub area plan (December 2nd and 3rd respectively), which included plans for a marina on the ASB site. No official explanation was provided to the public before the waterfront plan was enacted.
Recently, Bob Burr received a response from Mayor Linville in the strange form of an internal port memo, dated December 11, 2013. The memo, written by Mike Stoner, environmental director, to Rob Fix, port director, references the Northwest Citizen article and attempts to defend the port’s conduct. While I am glad that at least some explanation was eventually obtained, it should have been issued for public release prior to enactment of the waterfront plan.
A copy of this internal memo, which includes a copy of the consultant’s report, may be found here.
Analysis of Port Memo
The memo substantiates Mr. Karlberg’s claim regarding revisions to consultant data. The memo concludes that “it is clear that there were a number of significant changes made to the [consultant's] report between the client review draft and the final work product.” However, Mr. Stoner asserts this was not inappropriate because the port commonly requires its consultants to provide a draft of their work product before the final report is issued.
According to Mr. Stoner, this occurs because consultants want to confirm that the assumptions in their work product are accurate and the port wants to make sure the final product is within the appropriate scope of review. This is certainly legitimate. What is not legitimate, however, is the timing of the port’s review. This type of review should occur before the consultant performs the work. There is a big difference between a consultant’s proposed work plan, and the completed work product.
Here, the port reviewed the consultant’s work after was it complete, but before the final report was published. Mr. Stoner asserts this is standard agency practice, intended to create “a high quality and usable product.” Perhaps this is true, but it raises credibility concerns with the consultant process.
The internal port memo explained why adjustments were made to the marina cost estimates for the ASB site, and the crux of the explanation involves the determination of liability for site remediation and cleanup. This is the justification for significant revisions to cost for dredging/disposal (draft: $23 million and final: $0) and property acquisition (draft: $.8 million and final: $13 million).
Mr. Stoner alleged that at the time of the 2004 consultant report, Georgia Pacific was responsible for the cost of site remediation under the Model Toxic Control Act and its NPDES stormwater permit. The evidence to support this claim is a “very public discussion under the multi-agency Bellingham Bay Demonstration Pilot.” According to Mr. Stoner, the contractor incorrectly attributed the cleanup costs to the port, and the adjustment for dredging/disposal reflects the correction.
Mr. Stoner also claims that property acquisition costs were revised to reflect the fact that the port would be purchasing the ASB property at fair market value after BP cleaned it up. The total cost for the ASB site was estimated at $50.7 million in the consultant’s draft and at $33.9 million in the final report, which is a difference of about $17 million. The dredging and property purchase adjustments account for $11 million dollars, which still leaves about $6 million dollars in unexplained adjustments.
Analysis of Consultant’s Report
The port memo includes a copy of the consultant’s final report, which is attached in support of Mr. Stoner’s explanation. (See pages 13-17 of report.) I reviewed the report, and it does not support the facts alleged by Mr. Stoner. The consultant report states as follows:
The ASB site, along with adjacent waterway areas, is part of the multi-agency effort to address cleanup of historic contamination problems in Bellingham Bay. The effort also includes a mix of stakeholders, property owners, and procedural options. How land acquisition, cleanup costs and procedural options are negotiated or agreed upon is still being clarified through that effort. For purposes of this survey, it is assumed that the Port would acquire the site at the recently appraised value of $0.65 per square foot and the enclosing rubble wave barrier would be acquired at the cost of building a new wave barrier if that improvement did not exist.
Mr. Stoner asserts that GP’s remediation liability was certain, and provided the basis for necessary corrections to marina cost estimates. This is contradicted by the consultant, who stated that cleanup costs are “still being clarified.” Mr. Stoner is obviously aware that “public discussions” do not create legal liability, yet this is the only evidence he cites in support of his claim.
Mr. Stoner asserts that acquisition costs were corrected to reflect the fair market value of the ASB site after GP cleanup. In contrast, the consultant’s report indicates that land acquisition negotiations and agreements were “still being clarified.” The consultant notes that “for the purpose of this survey, it is assumed that the port would acquire the site at the recently appraised value of $0.65 per square foot…” This strained language does not reflect purchase of property at a fair market value subsequent to site remediation. Instead, it reflects assumptions, pursuant to port directive, that are applicable only to the consultant’s report.
In summary, the explanation by the port is not credible. The justification provided by the port for the data adjustments is not confirmed through the consultant’s report. The explanation was never officially released to the public and was provided only after the city and port enacted a waterfront plan that included the marina.
Thanks to Doug Karlberg for alerting the public about this matter. Thanks to Bob Burr and others for raising this issue before our elected officials and demanding an explanation. Thanks to Northwest Citizen for providing a public forum. As long as our government refuses to conduct business in an open and transparent manner, we need local citizens to hold government accountable.