On Wednesday evening, April 26th, the audience at the South Hill Neighborhood Association (SHNA) meeting was sizeable and included two City Council members and Mayor Fleetwood. The issue on the agenda was the noise from ABC Recycling operations at the Port of Bellingham.
It seemed clear from initial discussion that most attendees did not know the history behind the unexpected appearance of two gigantic and highly visible scrapheaps on the vacated GP land just beyond the former Boardmill Building. Nor were they prepared for the cacophony that followed a few weeks later as portable cranes bit into the scrap piles and rusted metal cascaded noisily down the slopes. The smaller heaps they formed were bound for dump trucks and then transport to a waiting ship docked at the Shipping Terminal.
The noise from that operation was loud, unfamiliar, and grating. It started early in the morning and continued until 3 am. When the source became apparent, complaints were made to both the Port and City Hall. The Port obtained acoustical survey data showing that though noisy, the clamor did not exceed COB’s environmental noise guidelines.
Nonetheless, because of citizen complaints, the Port attempted to mitigate the problem by erecting a “sound barrier" by stacking packing crates in the area where the scrap is dropped into the ship's hold. A follow-up acoustical survey showed little change. It seems to have escaped the Port's consultants that, in any case, surveys that measure sound in decibels are largely irrelevant to an individual's perception of the "loudness" of a noise—which is measured in phons.
Meeting attendees talked about the noise and personal experiences of disturbed sleep and inability to concentrate on daytime work. But what was irksome to most everyone was the sense that an unexpected and unpleasant intrusion into our daily lives had occurred, and it was one that couldn't be "normalized" as just another part of the urban background.
After a bit of fruitless discussion about how the noise problem might be solved, we began to look more deeply into its causes. How had this come to be? How did we end up with cranes and tractors hurling and shoving rusted scrap from two gigantic heaps into dump trucks, then rumbling to the dock where it was even more noisily dropped into the hold of a waiting vessel?
It seems, with very little public commentary and no apparent scrutiny by the City, a long-term contract has been negotiated between the Port and a Canadian recycling company. The agreement allows the company to transport huge quantities of scrap metal to the Port, most of it collected from outside Bellingham.
The rusted scrap is deposited in two enormous heaps close to the Shipping Terminal in an area known to be heavily contaminated by residual toxins left behind by GP, in particular mercury. The concentrations of mercury beyond the Boardmill Building, from Laurel St. to the Shipping Terminal, are so high they triggered the Washington State Model Toxic Cleanup Act which brought the Department of Ecology in to design and supervise mandatory remediation. It is in this area that the Port leased a six-acre parcel to ABC Recycling to carry out their operations.
Once everyone at the meeting understood the dimensions of the problem, the appropriate questions followed: How could this have happened? How is this possible when we've been waiting expectantly for the Waterfront Renovation that we were promised? What about those sketches in the Bellingham Waterfront Master Plan (2019 version) depicting quiet walking paths bordered with trees, pocket parks, trails, and beaches?
Some of us, aware of the issue for months, had met with the Port Commissioners and asked them these questions directly. Their answer was that their "mandate" is to create jobs and bring in revenue. When their position was described at the SHNA meeting, many individuals expressed a sense of betrayal. We all had expectations about the transformation of the waterfront as described in the Waterfront Master Plan. Even worse was the information about un-remediated toxic contamination on the very site ABC was carrying out its operations. The issues of health and environmental hazard superseded our concerns about the auditory and visual blight that first got our attention.
But most surprising of all was that the COB representatives themselves, including Mayor Fleetwood, seemed to have been unaware of problems at the Port until they, like us, awoke one morning assailed by loud, unidentifiable, screeching noise.
How can this have happened when the Waterfront Plan, in all of its formulations since 2013, was self-described as “…prepared jointly by the Port and the City of Bellingham”? Now that the Plan has matured and is being operationalized in stages, is there no one in city administration whose job is to scrutinize every significant move by any developer, industrial firm, architectural firm, or business? Is no one checking for activity that might be inconsistent with, or disruptive of, the future of the waterfront so optimistically depicted in the Final Waterfront District Master Plan?
Where was the planning department in all this? How was the zoning of ABC Recycling’s operation finessed so that it ended up zoned under "Maritime and additional…" which automatically bypasses the State Environmental Policy Act inspection (SEPA)? Given what we've seen since the arrival of ABC, it is quite clear that their operation more appropriately fits into the land use category "Recycling and Refuse Collection and Processing. If it had been assigned as such, it would probably have undergone an initial investigation by SEPA because recycling of material from outside of Bellingham is only permitted “conditionally.” An investigation may have questioned the propriety of such activity being allowed at all on highly contaminated, un-remediated land that had been subject to the conditions imposed by the Washington Model Toxics Cleanup Act.
The good news is that now, though belatedly, City Hall has been brought into the discussion. We hope they realize this is a problem no one can ignore. It impacts present environmental and health concerns and should act as a constraint against the Port going forward and looking for similar contracts based on their narrow view of their “mandate."
The “Vision” described in the final Waterfront Plan is the “restoration of health of land & water,” and “making the waterfront a regular part of the lives of more people.” It is difficult to reconcile these initial steps taken by the Port as embracing these goals.