Bellingham and Whatcom County just got taken for possibly the biggest ride since European settlers bamboozled native residents and took the place over. We are living with a gang of master thieves and have just been royally fleeced. Someone will benefit. It's just not clear who or how. What is certain is that it will not likely benefit taxpaying citizens.
According to the Military Highway Water Supply Corporation, extended aeration wastewater treatment plants they built in 2000 cost a bit over $2 million for a capacity of 510,000 gallons per day. By extension, the 50 million gallon per day facility G-P left behind would be worth about $2 billion. Wrecking it for a marina leaves the local sewer rate base holding the bag for far higher future replacement costs. None of this has ever been publicly examined. Requests have been repeatedly refused or ignored. The review was intentionally rigged to avoid this issue from the beginning. It is theft, pure and simple. Pretending it doesn't exist, the port turns it into a stream of moorage revenues, with the public paying for both the marina and future treatment capacity.
There is no special public cost to using the ASB for water treatment. It is already approved for that. It has an approved perforated mid-bay outfall and a permitted mixing zone. This is golden. Industry dreams of this and spends millions to get it. G-P got it. We now have it. It's literally irreplaceable. The plan review doesn't even acknowledge it exists. DIscussing uses other than a marina has been systematically prevented. Hence, the ramifications have not been examined. An inter-local public process has somehow sentenced the municipal rate base to higher future replacement costs for their next 50 million gallons per day of treatment needs - something we already own. Guess who will also pay the bill for mucking out the lagoon and disposing of it's toxic sediments?
Then there's the yet unmentioned cost of building an unneeded marina for yachts no one in Bellingham owns. That's many, many millions more.
Perhaps the biggest hidden cost is breaking the industrial water supply/treatment system our so-called environmental review was designed to ignore. The plan fails to look at the potential of the lagoon as a sediment repository or for industrial, storm and sanitary water treatment. This system includes a 48” stainless steel industrial water supply to the site - worth ten or more million current dollars. Once the port-owned lagoon is wrecked, the city-owned water supply becomes worthless, and not just because the city will never again receive water rate revenues from that public asset - more costs the study never accounted.
Breaking this supply/treatment system will severely and possibly irreparably foreclose our ability to host living wage jobs. Even good, clean industry needs water and treatment capacity. When the treatment is gone, the water is useless. That could cost many more billions in lost opportunities. For instance, Whatcom County agriculture took a big hit when Bellingham upgraded their wastewater treatment plant and could no longer handle the rich carbohydrates from vegetable processing. G-P's lagoon could help restore vegetable production in Whatcom County. That's jobs and food security. There could be light manufacturing opportunities that would like to dovetail with the university, our marine services, or our various design labs, building electric cars or solar panels. No one will ever know. None of this was reviewed.
We are blessed with surplus water supply and treatment capacity left behind by G-P. Any other community would flaunt it to recruit good jobs. Most would want to preserve the water right. The port, ostensibly charged with promoting economic development, has refused to try. Recruiting jobs was never considered. The port is set on a yacht basin. They pretend the system doesn't exist because they will rely on revenues from moorage and selling off our waterfront land. That is what benefits their jobs at the port, not farmers growing peas.
Further, when the facility is no longer available for treating stormwater, the public will spend yet more on expensive end-of-pipe stormwater treatment options that have proven to not work as well as expected, to frequently fail during peak events and to discharge stored toxins in sudden surges directly into the nearshore habitat. We will get to pay much, much more for inferior water quality and habitat results. Even though federal and state mandates to treat stormwater are known to be coming soon, studying whether the lagoon could serve this need was intentionally avoided. Urban runoff has been identified as the single largest threat to the future health of the Salish Sea.
The very reason the lagoon exists at all is because an oceanographic study of Bellingham Bay in the 1960s discovered a “concentrating current” in the “inner harbor” area near the mill site which traps pollution, preventing it from mixing with tidal waters. Consequently, G-P built their lagoon with an outfall far from shore, beyond the effect of the inner harbor gyre. Urban runoff entering the bay in this area will remain and concentrate - just as mill pollution did - and forever increasingly inhibit the rehabilitation of the nearshore habitat upon which the entire ecosystem depends. What's the cost of that?
The costs keep coming. Because of shortcomings in our sanitary system, peak storm events overburden sewers, creating Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs). These are discharged into the mouth of Whatcom Creek, immediately adjacent to the treatment lagoon. The CSOs are violations of our discharge permit and are happening with increased frequency. The city gets fines and has an obligation to mitigate. CSOs could be transferred directly to the lagoon, where they could be treated and discharged far from shore. Instead, the city plans to spend many more millions building concrete boxes to capture and hold excess flows until they can be metered back into the pipe to the Post Point treatment plant. These facilities, with complicated pumps and valves, must be entered, cleared of debris and maintained after every use. Higher M&O budgets have not been mentioned.
These are just a few of the ramifications of the newly adopted plan, but wait, there's more.
The existing tax base downtown took a sharp decades-long downturn after less than one million square feet of retail space was opened at Bellis Fair. This new plan expects that six times as much development can be interposed between downtown and the waterfront without any ill effect. The port's policy is to put this property back on the tax rolls as soon as possible. This guarantees only sales and lease revenues for the port, not a boost to the city or all citizens. If the project harms downtown, we could see decades of blight, squalor and increased crime. Damage to the existing tax base was never considered in the review and could easily offset any on-site gains. How soon we forget.
Port boosters claim heavy development of the G-P site will benefit the public. But even slight damage to downtown valuations will so quickly offset any benefit from the port's waterfront development that the hundreds of millions in agreed city investments will soon seem absurd. Meanwhile, the financial obligations will hamstring any meaningful city response for years to come, further benefitting the port's waterfront competition.
As we unwittingly consign the Central Business District to second tier strip clubs, tat shops, and card rooms, we might also anticipate the port delivering their coup de grâce in the form of a tribal accord for a waterfront casino that strips even card room potential from downtown, oops, now soon to be “uptown.” This deal may already exist. It wouldn't be the port's first secret accord with a tribe. That's just the way they roll. The city has already approved a plan that would allow this (preliminarily, with the final approval scheduled for December 9).
What a waste. We currently have, for the first time in any of our lives, a consolidated public waterfront. This could be an enormous benefit to Bellingham, as Stanley Park is to Vancouver. However, the port intends to sell it back into the private sector for development that will benefit only the port. They are literally stealing the benefit of a public waterfront from citizens without so much as a debate. These costs are less tangible, but extensive and enormous.
The benefits that a broad, open public waterfront might confer upon the existing tax base downtown, and for the county as a whole, were never considered. Imagine a place for visitors to arrive in buses from casinos, or in their campers and RVs, where Lyndenites can show their midwestern visitors the Salish Sea and San Juan archipelago, where folks can walk their dogs or play volleyball, or watch harbor seals hauled out on log floats or otters scrambling through rip rap. For minimal capital expense, and without heaping undisclosed fiscal indignities upon an unsuspecting public, we could have made this a beautiful place to benefit all the county for generations to come. How much will losing that cost us?
Instead, the plan benefits only the port, which has done such a miserable job of serving public needs that most citizens do not even understand they exist. Cloaked in this confusion, the upshot of the port's policy framework has been to shift all costs to the public while sparing polluters and creating unprecedented entitlements for developers.
Then there are the guesstimated costs of remediation, maybe $100+ million just for G-P - more than twice the original estimate, and perhaps still severely underestimated. There are costs of city-supplied infrastructure, maybe $200 million or more. There are further costs to capping the waterway, mucking out the lagoon, addressing discovery of pollution more extensive than expected. Recent revelations that the port tampered with public records to lower ASB marina costs by about 40% should give cause to suspect that public costs may end up much higher.
According to a presentation previously posted on the Sediment Management Working Group's website, actual project costs for contaminated sediment removal range between $220 and $1,670 per cubic yard. G-P's consultants and the multi-agency “consensus based” Bay Action Group detailed options ranging between 160,000 and 1,900,000 cubic yards of sediment removal. At the low end of this comparative actual project cost scale, really cleaning up all the contaminated sediments would cost $418,000,000. The high-end, at $1670/cubic yard, would cost over $1.5 billion. Even though the port unilaterally adopted a remedial alternative that will clean up the least possible contaminated goo, their proposal doesn't necessarily add up. Will we drastically skimp on actual clean-up, or end up holding a very big bag for costs much larger than are being represented by the port? Can we trust their numbers?
Even with proof that the port fudged numbers, city decision makers have accepted all without question. They have capitulated to the port on every aspect of every element of the plan. They have obligingly committed citizens to covering all these unknown costs. They have abandoned once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and allowed the port to reap all benefits. They argue that the land sitting idle benefits no one. But who does it harm? We have already seen that development as proposed could be far more expensive and harmful than advertised.
Several Growth Management Hearings Board cases I recently reviewed impose a very high SEPA standard on non-project GMA actions like this. They repeatedly reason that reviews must adequately inform policy makers of the potential impacts of their decisions before subsequent project permitting creates ballooning impacts that adversely affect other capital facilities or service area planning. Bottom line? Plan comprehensively. Don't piecemeal, and be consistent. Both the port and city have been extremely consistent, but with a remarkably contrary willingness to obfuscate, deceive and conceal rather than comply with these simple principles.
It is worthy of note that public fatigue and participatory drop-off seemed highly engineered in the final phase of this issue. After a decade of public process, a new plan was conceived. This last year of the new plan included supplemental environmental reviews without public input, vast project re-scoping without inviting public comment, documents unavailable for review or too illegible to read. It has defined a new low in participatory democracy, and perhaps a new high in institutional collusion.
The review for this plan refused to evaluate many billions in potential costs to the public. It refused to compare the relative benefits of many other viable options. The port knew what they wanted and stuck doggedly to it, chipping away inexorably, wearing out first the public and finally the stalwart protectors we elect to guide our fair city. The port's practice of using fraudulent numbers should have clouded the validity of the plan when finally discovered, but officials are either complicit, apathetic or so worn out they can't be bothered to ask questions.
Long before acquiring the property, when the port first invoked eminent domain to seize the lagoon for the public purpose of a marina, G-P arrived at the hearing to advise the port that touting a public purpose for condemnation included a duty to demonstrate it was the “highest and best” public purpose. G-P suggested it would be difficult to show that a marina was a higher and better use than water treatment. Of course, G-P was right, so the port completely avoided any such comparison by assuring, structurally, that the review would never even consider it. That's fraud.
This plan now reflects few of the goals and objectives outlined over years of robust public participation. It mostly reflects the new “Framework and Assumptions” most lately adopted and relentlessly pounded through for approval with little public involvement. The impending final approval is worth challenging. It will be far more difficult to amend the plan after this Monday's final vote. Citizens should let their council members know. Ask them why they would do this to constituents who trusted their judgement. Ask them who is really calling the shots.
Perhaps Bellingham can generate social movement sufficient to correct this corrupt misdirection of our waterfront resources and avoid being saddled with the incalculable costs of this boondoggle of billions. Only time will tell, and there is precious little left.
Write your Reps jointly - firstname.lastname@example.org