Restoring Health of Land and Water—Bellingham Style

Toxic waste, scrap recycling, jarring noise, and dubious processes on the waterfront: How did this happen?

Toxic waste, scrap recycling, jarring noise, and dubious processes on the waterfront: How did this happen?

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. 

About David Netboy

Citizen Journalist • Bellingham • Member since Mar 09, 2023

Retired Emergency Doc with 30 yrs experience at St Joe's between 1987 and 2017.

Comments by Readers

Carol Follett

Apr 30, 2023

This evident neglect of the the Port’s obligations to the health and welfare of our community is disappointing.

My immediate response is that I will not vote to return any of the current commissioners to their positions. I hope we will find future  representatives of our citizen stakeholders that seek  input and approval from those impacted by the development,  nearby  and farther from it in the community. I know “job creation” is frequently the justification for undesirable land use. How many jobs were created with this scrap business? I am curious about why Canada does not want those jobs in their own country? What reason makes them ship their trash to us? Isn’t it more expensive (environmentally and economically) to ship it here than to compress it there?

I remember early discussions about the use of the GP land and our desire for more public access. I also remember looking at a map of liquifaction zones and feeling concern for any building on those sites. 

It would also be interesting to revisit this topic looking at what other areas have done, and how our increasing undersding of climate change should influence what we choose to do on our shoreline.


M. Lynda Hanscome

Apr 30, 2023

April 30: 

Response to David Netboy

Excellent and informative article.  Well done!  Lynda Hanscome


Doug Karlberg

May 01, 2023

Ms. Follett,


With all due respect, I beleive that you have some facts wrong.

First, this is not Canadian scrap. By contract the Port and ABC Recycling 81.25% of the scrap is of USA origin. There is an agreement to allow 18.75% of the scrap to come via barge from Vancouver Island. I have not seen a barge yet, but regardless the overwhelming majority of this scrap is of US origin.

This scrap is from Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish, and King counties.

The argument that this is Canada;s scrap is simply not factually correct.

Second, if you are concerned about human safety, maybe you should be worried about the kids bike track, or the park, or the housing going up on this Georgia Pacific brownfield.  Scrap is probably the only safe thing to store on the capped mercury contaminated soil.

Third, Ports are limited to doing things that Legislature lays out in statute. Each Port Commissioner is required by law to follow these statutes. Ports are the primary economic developments agancies owned by the people.

It only takes a couple of minutes to read the statute, It is only three or four paragraphs. Google them.

RCW 53.04.010 and RCW 53.04.020

Legislature has determined that Ports should build, maintain, and operate shipping terminals.

One can easily see that the Port of Bellingham is doing exactly as legislature intended.


Doug Karlberg

May 02, 2023

Mr. Netboy,

You continue to get your facts wrong and mislead people.

First you continue to refer to the “Waterfront District Master Plan” and then try to take the artist illustrations and apply them to the other districts in the plan.

When the Port purchased the GP land, it divided the land into six distinct districts. Only one of which is called the “Waterfront District” or the “Downtown Waterfront District” The artist illustrations of trees and beautiful walkways only applies to the “Downtown Waterfront” District.

Your implication that these artist renderings should be applied to the other five districts: the Shipping Terminal, the Logpond, the Marine Trades, the ASB Pond, or the Cornwall Beach is factually untrue and misleads the reading public. (See page 4)

Suggesting that these artist illustrations of the future should apply to the Logpond area or the Shipping Terminal is misleading at best. That was not the plan, is not the plan, and never was the plan, and eveybody signed off on this damn plan.

This Final Master Plan was the culmination of 15 plans over 20 years. Copius public testimony was taken. I am curious if you participated in this arduous public process.

If you understand the differing roles of Port versus cities, you would understand that the City of Bellingham does not control the Port of Bellingham.

Lastly, it is not the Port’s narrow view of its’ mandate. It is the Legislature’s narrow view of what ports are allowed to do that your complaint is with.

Our port has to follow the law as laid out by legislature, and you should read the law. I have referenced it above for everyone to read in my comments to Ms. Follett. It only takes a couple on minutes. The Port of Bellingham is following the law as precisely written.

You should take your complaints up with legislature. I doubt you will have much luck as legislature understands the economic importance of working ports which deliver economic benifits to a broad region of people, rather than devoting energy into making a few people happy.


Carol Follett

May 03, 2023

We always have a choice in the way we interpret rules made with, hopefully, the intention of protecting the health and welfare of our communities. A mixed use of our waterfront does not mean we are required to polute with noise or toxins. It does not require us to ignore the harms to our neighbours.

I look forward to some candidates for the Port who are compassionate, concerned about all of us, and creative problem solvers.


David Netboy

May 03, 2023
Mr Karlberg,
There is an enormous distinction between what “Can Be Done” and what “Should Be Done”  The ABC recycling activity is a source of uncommon noise. It can pollute the immediate environment if it disturbs the contaminated sub-soil on which it operates.  It may interfere with the, painstakingly designed decontamination plans involving  the very property on which it is working. Its presence at the end of the Bay Street View Corridor is an affront to many of us who have studied the artist renderings in the Bellingham Waterfront District Master Plan and have taken seriously the section on “Vision”
The fact that this company’s business may, in the abstract be, “permissible” under your reading of “the law” or is something that, per the Legislature, “Ports are allowed to do,” certainly does not imply that it should be done irrespective of context or of the harms that might result from doing it.
D. Netboy

D. Crook

May 08, 2023

This all started with land theft.  Not as ‘ancient history’ for all parties as we might like to tell ourselves.  I realize, as we remain ambitious and self-centerd as ever, that nobody will ever give it back—but it does lend a peculiar / ironic backlighting to internal debates over legitmacy. 

Port guy—wow I hope you’re wrong—what a terrible outcome for all of us.  I’m not exactly on the side of more rich-people housing either, but dang…  What “jobs” are worth re-releasing toxins & pollutants into the land and water here?


Doug Karlberg

May 11, 2023

Mr. Crook,

Your post as I read might leave the reading public with the impression that the Port is allowing the “re-releasing toxins & pollutants into the land and water here”.

As far as I know, this is simply not the case. The Port of Bellingham has in recent times taken toxins and pollutants very seriously. Our Port today is light years ahead of the Port in 2003. The change is remarkable. Today;s Port has made huge strides in transparency. I just watched a Port meeting availible online. The earlier Port Commissioners fought this change of taping and publishing meetings. You can thank the three Commissioners we have today that wholeheartedly support our Port’s transparency.

Nothing runs off Port property today that is not measured, monitored by third party’s, and addressed quickly if there is a problem.

Speaking of transparency you can watch the Port’s environmental coordinator explain the process that is ongoing treating runoff from Port properties, escpecially the shipping terminal. Go to the Port of Bellingham website. Scroll down the page until you see the bold PORT COMMISSION - COMMISSION MEETING. Then right under the Bold letters is a link “Watch meetings on Youtube” Go to the top left and you will see the May 2, 2023 meeting. Hit it and go to 1:19 through 1:24. It is a 5 minute presentation on how the Port monitors and manages storm water runoff.

The date from testing water can be accessed by the public anytime they want to know, on the DOE website.

These Port Commissioners and staff publish a lot of information so that the public can monitor what their port is doing. 


D. Crook

May 12, 2023

Mr. Port Guy,

Netboy’s critique in this article includes some very serious considerations about the SEPA bypass and mercury and unremediated toxic waste on the site that ABC operates on.  In further comments, it is clear that transparency / public expectation is also an issue.

To your responses—you may be right on the technical / legal points, I don’t know—it worries me that you might be—I know we have a lot of legal / gov structures that don’t serve us well.  I am glad this conversation is happening with the neighborhoods and the City, and I hope we can make whatever changes we need to, to ensure that health and safety for our community does not take second place to “jobs jobs jobs” / economic development.  Honestly, why that so often gets framed as a zero-sum argument in politics is a problem in it’s own right.


Thomas Gilmore

Jul 24, 2023

Doug Karlberg response on May 01, 2023 to Carol Follett raises more questions than it answers.  

Question #1: What is the actual tonnage or percentage of metal scrap from Whatcom? Skagit? Snohomish? and King Counties? I am assuming that most of this metal scrap is trucked 100+ miles up I-5 from King county.  Diesel fuel has to be an expensive cost of business.

Question #2:  What was ABC Recycling previously paying to ship from the Ports of Seattle, Everett, or Vancouver BC?  It would have to be more than the $1,500,000 that they are currently paying the Port of Bellingham. Why change shipping ports, or pay additional truck transportation expenses if this change of Ports would increase ABC Recycling’s bottom line business expenses?

Question #3: Did our Bellingham Port comissioners undercut shipping fees of these other WA State Port Districts in order to obtain the ABC Recycling business?  If so, by how much? Is this ethical or legal?

Question#4: Why a 15 year contract rather than a 10 or 5 year contract? Is this the standard or the sweet heart Port contract length?

Question #5: Why should the penalty to break the shipping contract cost Whatcom county taxpayers $30 million ($2 million for each year)  when the revenue from ABC Recycling is only $1.5 million a year?

Question #6:  What will it cost the Bellingham Port District to clean up this site after ABC Recycling leaves in 15 years (assuming they leave, and not renew the contract for another 15 years)?  Or does the Port have a Clean Up Bond from ABC Recycling for millions of dollars?

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