[Our Guest Writer, Scott Jones, is a Bellingham resident along with his family. He is President of the South Hill Neighborhood Association. He founded and ran Beyond Clothing, a custom American made clothing company, for 17 years. He is a local advocate for Affordable Housing, Food Security, and a high quality of life for Bellingham and Whatcom residents.]
At the Bellingham Waterfront, new condos are under construction, a new affordable housing apartment complex is being built, the Portal and Pump Track support successful new business, and a six acre, three story tall pile of scrap metal grows like a giant red pimple on the landscape, easily seen from Google Earth. The Metal Pile started to appear in July 2022. By October it was gigantic, and when the first ship came in, Bellingham residents discovered the Pile now needed to be moved a third of a mile to the ship, one dump truck load at a time.
It takes 10 days to load a ship. Dump trucks are loaded using long-armed excavators with massive claws. The trucks make continuous loops across the Shipping Terminal, beeping whenever they back up. Chunks of metal screech and scream down the ramps every time the dump-beds are raised, ultimately crashing onto the concrete beside the ship. Finally, the claws on the ship’s crane go to work, picking up the hunks of metal and dropping them into the steel hulls. A bulldozer assists this process by continuously scraping the metal over the concrete to shape and reshape the pile. The noise permeates homes from South Hill to the Lettered Streets.
Each ship can carry a minimum of 27,000 metric tons of cargo. The process takes 10 days and could occur every month for the next 25 years. During those 10 days, the hours of operation are 7 A.M. to 3 in the morning.
This process seems out of character for a developing Bellingham Waterfront.
The Log Pond at the Waterfront
The property the Metal Pile sits on is called the Log Pond. This portion of the Waterfront is an earth-filled location, with a cement cap, that during the GP days was used for mercury discharge in their wastewater. Over the years, as the Bellingham Waterfront came to be a planned development area, the Log Pond became a Department of Ecology Clean-Up Site.
While the land from the Granary building to the Boardmill building is zoned Commercial-mixed use, the area south, including the Log Pond and the Shipping Terminal are deemed Industrial.
Although industrial land can be anything from lite manufacturing to mining and steel production, the land at the Log Pond and Shipping Terminal is an “Industrial Mixed-use area to be utilized for transportation, construction or light industrial uses.” The 2018 Waterfront District Sub-area Plan describes possible uses as “light manufacturing and assembly, high technology, and research and development.”
In the summer of 2022, as Bellingham residents became aware of the Metal Pile, with the climax of loading the first ship, new information came to light that jarred the community. The Port of Bellingham had quietly signed a 15-25 year lease with a Canadian recycling collection company, ABC Recycling, to store vast amounts of Canadian ferrous metal at the Log Pond, and then ship it to places such as Vietnam and India.
Land Use Designation
When the Port and ABC Recycling came to an agreement and signed the lease, one assumes it included promises to ABC that the land could be used for heavy industrial storage of ferrous scrap metal, moving the metal, and shipping it. In February of 2022, around the time these negotiations and decisions were being made, the City of Bellingham hired a new planning director, Blake Lyon. Steve Sundin, a long-time senior planner within the Planning Department, and the City’s lead planning contact for the Shoreline Master Plan, and the Bellingham Waterfront, allowed the activity to proceed under the Land Use classification of BMC 20.37.420.E.10, a Barge Loading Facility. Two permits were issued: one for a truck scale, and one for a portable office.
This E10 Land Use determination was incredibly beneficial to ABC Recycling. It meant the project could move forward without additional review by the Planning Department for further mitigation of the project for issues such as noise or size. It also allowed ABC to work any time, day or night, and create massive piles of used metal in the middle of the Bellingham Waterfront.
The Bellingham Municipal Code, under 20.16.010.E7, states that the Director must “Not create influences substantially detrimental to neighboring uses. “Influences” shall include, but not necessarily be limited to: noise, odor, smoke, light, electrical interference, and/or mechanical vibrations.” To translate, even if a Permitted Land Use fits the bill, it must still be mitigated if it is large, possibly unsafe, and/or emits noise that disturbs thousands of people.
Further, the Waterfront Sub-area Plan calls into question ABC’s ability to use the land at the Log Pond. It designates the Log Pond as a place for “transportation, construction or light industrial uses,” and/or “light manufacturing and assembly, high technology, and research and development.”
But, upon review of the actual usage, the dust plumes and noise emanating from the property, the hours of operation, the size of the piles, and the possibly hazardous nature of the material, it is clear the land is being used for Heavy Industrial applications.
The Port of Bellingham has the right to lease their land, and although it seems contrary to good business practice of a prime piece of real estate, they have the right to lease their land for 25 years. What they do not have the right to do, is to operate a metal recycling collection facility without environmental mitigation, as dictated in Bellingham Municipal Code. Neighbors have called on the city to correct the use to F11, a Recycling Collection and Processing Facility. This designation correctly defines the use, and mitigates the high industrial nature of the activity. The City continues to insist that E10, a Barge Loading Facility, is the correct use. The Planning Director Blake Lyon has all power in this situation.
There is deep concern for the challenges the Metal Pile places on our environment. The State Environmental Protection Agency uses a system of checklists and rules to determine whether a project will have environmental impacts that must be mitigated. It is called a SEPA review. So far, we cannot determine whether a SEPA checklist was completed, nor whether there was a Determination of Non-significance. It has been suggested by some experts that the City or the Port were not fully aware of the extent of the Use when any environmental review occurred. If this is the case, the City has the right to revisit the Land Use classification of E10, as well as review the activity under SEPA.
What is obvious is that the Metal Pile is massive and difficult to control regarding water and air pollution. We know that dust plumes blow from the southwest to the northeast. The new Mercy affordable housing complex, including a childcare center, is northeast, as are new condominiums, a planned hotel, and the Waterfront Playground. Departing barges can be seen leaving a trailing red dust cloud over the Bay.
As early as December 2020, when the Port signed an Option Agreement with ABC Recycling, the Department of Ecology became involved. In a rare move, due to the lengthy lease term, and enormous size and scope of the project, Ecology has required ABC to have its own Wastewater Permit. As of January 2023, ABC Recycling continues to pile, store, and move massive amounts of Canadian scrap, feet from the Bellingham Bay shoreline without the required wastewater permit.
There is a lot wrong with the Metal Pile. The Port, though, continues to call the ABC Recycling scrap pile a win for the community. Here are the wins: 18 local union jobs (6-9 full time equivalents) working a total of 20 shifts every 2-3 months, lease of the Log Pond at $200,000/year, and shipping terminal fees accrued while loading.
What has it cost? Environmental damage, the health and safety of those downwind of the Metal Pile, damage to protected eel grass beds below the ships, thousands of hours of sleep and peaceful enjoyment of their homes by residents, and the possible loss of many union jobs that were planned for, under the Waterfront Plan.
Bellingham’s future is on a cusp. ABC Recycling is planning a metal shredder just north of the Birchwood residential neighborhood, near the cement factory. If completed, 40 trucks a day spewing heavy metals will travel through Bellingham, in a loop to the Metal Pile. Hazardous waste will be added to our landfills, as the scrapped car and appliance ‘residues’ that cannot be recycled must go somewhere. But that is for the future.
Find out more at www.savethewaterfront.org