[Guest Writer David Netboy is a retired physician with 40 years clinical experience in California and locally. He has lived and worked in Bellingham since 1987.]
Anyone driving to the “new” Bellingham Waterfront with high expectations following the disappearance of Georgia Pacific, to say nothing of the optimistic advertising including extensive and detailed Waterfront District Redevelopment Plans, will likely be dismayed to see two colossal mountains of rusted scrap metal squatting directly in your line of sight. How does this harmonize with the goals of redevelopment, which were “to include a balance of economic and community objectives and restore the health of the land and water…”?
In an attempt to answer that question, I hoped to discover somewhere in the tangle of overlapping City of Bellingham and the Port’s administrative committee documents, some clues to how the unexpected and strange intrusion of a scrap metal recycling operation from British Columbia found its way into the very midst of our renovation project.
From the onset, the project specifically and persuasively spoke about being a “Mixed Use Urban Neighborhood;” a place where people could “work, shop and recreate near where they live.” The Redevelopment Plan featured optimistic discussions of parks, view corridors, bike paths, and pedestrian walkways. The ghosts of past heavy industry, with its noise, environmental contamination, and depressing optics seemed to have been banished.
But one needs read only the introduction to the Sub-Area Plan to realize that if these heaps of rusted metal are part of the Plan’s implementation, something has gone seriously wrong.
1.1 Purpose of the Sub-Area Plan
The Sub-Area Plan aims to provide a framework for future“Waterfront District” development.
The Waterfront District Sub-Area Plan includes a balance of environmental, economic, and community objectives developed to restore the health of the land and water, improve waterfront access, promote a healthy and dynamic waterfront economy, and reinforce the inherent qualities of the waterfront. The initial 2013 Waterfront District Sub-Area Plan was prepared jointly by the Port and the City of Bellingham with input from residents, landowners, community stakeholders, and resource agencies to create a long-term redevelopment opportunity for the Waterfront District. The proposed 2018 update to this plan was prepared by the Port of Bellingham and Harcourt with input from City staff and the public. After additional public input, Planning Commission hearings, and City Council review, this plan is intended to be adopted by the Port and City as an amendment to the 2013 Sub-Area Plan.
So how did the Port finalize a contract with ABC Scrap Metal, which appears to subvert the Plan’s stated purpose of restoring the "health of the land and water"? My initial impression about this subversion was based on the March 7 public Port Commissioners meeting, during which the commissioners appeared immune to public criticism and unresponsive to specific complaints about noise, environmental pollution, and other harms created by their recent contract with ABC.
Of even more concern was their suggestion that they were prepared to seek further bulk loading business, irrespective of whether or not it fit into the Waterfront Plan. Their rationale was that job creation superseded any other objective for the future of the Waterfront, regardless of any statements in the Redevelopment Plan. Over the following weeks, the commissioners retreated somewhat from their initial unreceptive position and began to discuss mitigation.
But in order to get a better sense of what might have led them to contract with ABC, it might be helpful to look at the Port purchase, in 2021, of a large and hugely expensive crane (some of the cost defrayed by a grant). This purchase alone provides a glimpse into how the Port imagines its future.
By 2021, shipping from the Port of Bellingham was mostly confined to domestic barge traffic. This was a significant decline from its heyday in the 1960s when, propelled by the activity of GP and Intalco, the volume of cargo shipped out of the Port soared, achieving levels of 600,000 tons per annum into the 1990s. With the disappearance of both GP and Intalco, the loss of cargo out of the Shipping Terminal had reduced the port's share of total Whatcom County sales from 30-40% of all goods and services to about 14%.
Then in 2005, the Port acquired the 137-acre former GP property, which, along with the City, they agreed to develop into a people-friendly access to the waterfront as well as a site for housing, small businesses, and small parks.
The present Waterfront Sub-Area Plan arose from this concept, which is part of the Bellingham Waterfront District Master Plan. Of particular relevance to the current situation are two parts of the Sub-Area Plan: The land that during GP’s activity had once been zoned for Heavy Industrial Use, was rezoned as "Urban Village,” and “Mixed Use.” Urban Village emphasized the potential for low-density housing, bike and pedestrian trails, parks, and water access. At the same time, Mixed Use zoning would still preserve some of the Port's traditional industrial function as a shipping hub.
At the height of its shipping activity from the ‘60s through the ‘90s, the GP land and Shipping Terminal zones had been designated HI (Heavy Industrial); but under the new Master Plan, this designation was no longer available. The only industrial activities under the new Urban Village/Mixed Use rezoning were those designated “Light Industrial.” This meant that any industrial activity that produced hazardous waste or excessive noise in proximity to a residential or commercial area was either not permissible, or would require strict scrutiny before being allowed.
It appears the Port Commissioners felt that by providing a new crane, and increasing loading capabilities, they could restore the Port to its competitiveness in the maritime market that had been lost with the demise of GP and Intalco. When interviewed by the Bellingham Herald about the renovation of the Shipping Terminal, the Port specifically mentioned containers, logs, and soybeans as suitable candidates for storage and trans-shipment out of Bellingham. Unfortunately, despite their optimism and accompanying advertising, contracts for this kind of commerce did not flood in to the Port.
Into this vacuum stepped ABC Recycling, a scrap metal recycling operation based in B.C. What precipitated their appearance is unknown, but this was an opportunity to establish themselves in the U.S. through a contract with the Port of Bellingham. A deal was made.
The Port has since endorsed a 15-year contract with ABC Recycling. The result of this contract is a process that involves transporting thousands of tons of rusted scrap metal from unknown sources in British Columbia to Bellingham in open trucks and on barges. The scrap is heaped into two gigantic piles near the Shipping Terminal. Once there, it is clawed down the pile by tractor-mounted cranes, creating a deafening roar and a swirling cloud of rust-laden dust. At the bottom of this scrap mountain, the loosened scrap is scraped and dumped by bucketloads into waiting trucks. The trucks then drive several hundred yards to the dock, where a large bulk carrier, capable of holding 23,000 metric tons of scrap metal, will be docked.
The loads of rusted metal are then scooped from the dock where it was deposited by the dump trucks, hoisted above the vessel by the ship’s cranes and either dropped or placed in the vessel’s hold, depending on how much room is available. When dropped from a modest height into the hold, the noise produced is explosive. It was this “feature” of the operation that generated significant complaint from residential communities within earshot of the shipping terminal. The magnitude of the dissatisfaction caused Port Commissioners to consider various mitigation measures, including shortening operating hours that were initially seven a.m. to three a.m., well beyond Bellingham’s noise guidelines.
The extent to which this operation is antithetical to the stated purposes of the Waterfront Plan seems glaring. So, why was it not considered when the ABC contract was negotiated? I could not access content of any public discussion of the contract. However, there seems to have been a tiny space carved out for such feedback at the Port Commission meeting on Dec 8, 2020. But the only referenced commenter was an individual from Local 7, ILWU, (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) and no one else.
Another question is, where was the review by even one of the several oversight committees who are charged with assuring that new industrial activities brought into the Waterfront District align with the overall plan? Had a proper review taken place, it would have been difficult to overlook glaringly obvious subversion of the intended design, for example the way one of the carefully constructed "view corridors" now directed the eye to the two tremendous mountains of rusted scrap metal isolated in what resembled a post-industrial landscape.
Can this entire debacle be described as an example of “best intentions having gone awry?” The desire of the Port to increase shipping commerce by contracting with known and environmentally safe entities is understandable. However, failing to attract any reasonable candidates, they may have felt it necessary to contract with a business whose activities create violations of a showpiece waterfront renovation plan which the Port itself helped design. At this point, the contract seems to have gone forward without the scrutiny and/or sign-off of the oversight agencies whose duty it is to protect the Waterfront Plan from being subverted. The net result, whether attributable to poor judgment or failed oversight, is that we will likely have a toxic scrap heap in our backyards for the next 15 years!