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Three Wise Men?

The Port Commission has decreed that Bellingham’s waterfront will remain a toxic, festering sore

The Port Commission has decreed that Bellingham’s waterfront will remain a toxic, festering sore

The holidays are behind us and it’s time to get on with the work of a New Year.  

The Port of Bellingham has for over a century had a three member commission. These Three WIse Men's  recent waterfront “gift” of ABC Recycling may be the gift that keeps on taking - for the foreseeable future.  Our work this year is now unlikely to follow the vision outlined in the Waterfront Plan, labored over for years by citizens and officials trying to recover Bellingham’s central waterfront from the toxic legacies of the past. The millions poured into municipal infrastructure are unlikely to be recovered anytime soon.  One “luxury condominium” project is already on the ropes and no one is coming to the rescue. Would you like your luxury digs downwind from a noisy, toxic mess?

Bad decisions are the root cause of these legacy problems - the smelly, toxic, hydric sludge creating a kill zone on the bottom of Bellingham Bay, the 40 years of toxic emissions and hundreds of tons of missing mercury G-P's chlorine plant spread to the bay, downwind of the site and illegally buried (directly under the metal pile), the plan to sacrifice a billion dollar water treatment facility to improve Port profits at public expense. From Blaine to Fairhaven, the Port's properties have become a huge public liability. Are any three people wise enough to balance the needs of our growing community?

The Waterfront Plan describes a “once in a century opportunity” to “restore public access” and create a healthy, vibrant and dynamic waterfront community that “will reflect the commitment of Bellingham citizens to environmental stewardship by remediating historic contamination and restoring degraded shorelines to provide habitat for fish, birds and small wildlife species, as well as, opportunities for public access to the water”.

The Three Wise Men behind the Port of Bellingham's 17+ year long-term lease to ABC Recycling for a toxic metal pile has signaled their intent to continue environmentally questionable activities at the expense of broader community goals to “Encourage a compatible mix of urban density commercial, residential, recreational, institutional, and light industrial uses…”. Instead, these will all be delayed indefinitely for a handful of “family wage” jobs - and an impressive revenue stream to the Port.

Not far into the Waterfront Plan, the narrative allows that the “natural environment has been devastated by more than a century of unregulated heavy industrial activity on the waterfront”, and lists “six state-listed cleanup sites…(that)…include contaminants at levels exceeding state standards in the soil, surface water, ground water and sediments caused by historic industrial activities”.

The Port of Bellingham, established 103 years ago, has been instrumental, for more than a century, in attracting, cultivating and sustaining activities responsible for the environmental damage the public is now cleaning up. Thanks to just Three Wise Men on the Port Commission, ABC Recycling’s toxic metal pile adds a seventh devastating industrial activity to the list.  

The environmental health risks of scrap iron commingled with chromium, cadmium, zinc, the fugitive dust emissions, noise and toxic stormwater have already been discussed. But the opportunity costs to the community of a prime development site overshadowed by this noisome bulk have yet to be accounted.  Similarly, who will account for the lost opportunities when a metal shredder is positioned to shield a defunct cement plant from closure, making potentially a billion dollars of taxable assessment on island view residential property unavailable in Bellingham’s western Urban Growth Area - close to the waterfront and downtown services?

The City’s failure to determine this activity as “Recycling” despite the company’s name, their industrial classification code, or succinct provisions in the City code describing such activities is also surprising.  To do so would impose requirements for environmental review, full enclosure, screening, limits on noise and hours of operation, etc.  Instead, ABC’s activity commenced without so much as an application or Determination of Consistency, without an environmental review and without a proper stormwater discharge permit - and continues to operate as such today.

It’s time we discuss the real problem: Our three member Port Commission.  

In such a body, only two votes are needed to set the course and character of important community resources. A Three Wise Men commission has proven itself insensitive to adequate public notice or public engagement, and shown it can consistently make decisions that may be good for the Port’s bottom line, but are otherwise undesirable public outcomes: The exorbitant public costs of environmental clean ups, delayed or lost development opportunities, risks to human health and the environment.

In both theory and practice a five member commission - as provided for in State law - is the answer our dynamic community deserves. Broader representation and better access, more comprehensive debate, more circumspect consideration and better decision-making are the benefits we currently forego.  

Our own former Senator Harriet Spanel in 1994 ushered the enabling State legislation through to approval.  Her husband was a fisherman and both were acutely aware of how the Port selfishly benefits by remaining under the public’s radar.  Many citizens misunderstand the Port to be a department of the City instead of a county-wide taxing jurisdiction.  A five member commission will bring much needed sunshine to this darkest of local public agencies.

Concerned Citizens need not remain stymied by impervious officials or obtuse bureaucracies. With about 8,000 legitimate signatures from the registered electors of Whatcom County, citizens can nudge the course of this mercenary agency toward more democratic policy and better public  outcomes.  Without such action our waterfront will end up in private hands while it's value is monetized into the Port's coffers.

A Three Wise Men approach to Bellingham's waterfront future can no longer be trusted.  The costs are too high.

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Comments by Readers

Larry Horowitz

Jan 09, 2024

Excellent opinion piece, Tip. Thank you. 

Thanks also for linking to a video of candidate Kim Lund’s comments about ABC Recycling’s activities at a recent candidate forum. Below is a transcript from that forum which, in many ways, is eye-opening. In her remarks, Kim admits that the mess at the waterfront created by the prior administration makes her “wonder about the conversations between the port and the city that have led us to this moment.” Amen.

Here’s the transcript of the moderator’s questions and Kim’s response:

Moderator’s questions

  • What’s your position on ABC Recycling and issues related to industrial noise, pollution, and impact on city streets and neighborhoods?
  • How do you balance industrial activity and economic development with residential concerns?

Mayoral candidate Kim Lund’s response (beginning at 2:24)

“To me, it [the ABC Recycling conflict] has shades of the Gateway Pacific Terminal right now in what is going through our community.

“And, we absolutely had a working waterfront. My grandfather retired from Georgia Pacific, and my uncle was a displaced worker when that plant went down. And, we took that closure as an opportunity to reimagine a waterfront. And in part of my preparation for this [forum], I spent time looking at the 2004 Waterfront Futures Group recommendations. And we, as a community, came together and created an incredible and inspiring vision for what we could turn that into.

“And, we have taken the time as a community to invest in this vibrant vision. And, what ABC brings is a contrast to that vibrancy. And it is critical that we have a working waterfront, but I see this as – there, of course there’s noise abatement and mitigation from that operation that we need to be tackling as a city. And, to be honest, it makes me wonder about the conversations between the port and the city that have led us to this moment.

“But we, as a community, over years have done the hard work to move Parbury, to relocate them out of Old Town so that it could meet its full potential. And now we have another recycling facility in the heart of the waterfront.

“And, to me, this seems to be an issue of jobs vs. jobs. So, we do have good jobs that are being created at the recycling facility right now. But at what cost to the other jobs? There is millworks that is being constructed and about to open, which will bring families living to the waterfront. We have a new hotel that is going to be adjacent to this property. And so, we have got to come back to the vision of what we have invested in over the years as a community, and really ask these critical questions about the waterfront that we want and works for all.”


It will be interesting to see if Mayor Kim Lund views the ABC situation in the same light as candidate Kim Lund. I hope she does, especially if we work collaboratively with her to implement an effective solution.

To start, the city must require ABC to submit a request to have its land use and activities qualified under the city’s Planned Action Ordinance (PAO). Upon qualification - and the issuance of a Determination of Consistency with the Waterfront District’s environmental impact statement (EIS) - the public will finally have a 14-day period to appeal the city’s determination.

The city’s failure to previously notify the public about ABC’s proposed land use and activities - and provide an opportunity for appeal - is a breach of the public’s trust  that Mayor Kim Lund can immediately rectify.

I know Kim, we’ve been neighbors for the past 17 years. I support her, and I believe she is up to the challenge. 


David Netboy

Jan 10, 2024
Wondering how we got here? Tip Johnson’s piece on the Three Wise Men will help answer that question. “Our” ABC problem is just another installment of “Business as Usual down at the Port”  I found it quite unbelievable that ABC Recycling could arrive, unpack and launch their raucous pollution machine without so much as ticking a checkbox on any of the forms or permit applications normally required of a new business seeking to operate out of the Port.  
The Port and COB are parties to an “Interlocal Agreement” under whose terms the Log Pond Area and Shipping Terminal are part of a Planned Action Ordinance. This enables any new business wanting to operate at the Port to waive the usual SEPA evaluation by simply answering questions on an application and submitting it to the judgment of the “Director” of the PAO who determines whether their operation is “Consistent” with the description of the activities permitted by the PAO rules or is not consistent.  ABC took none of the initial required steps towards being certified as “Consistent,” which was highly irregular.  Given COB’s agreement with the Port in managing the Waterfront District PAO, it is not difficult to believe that there was collusion between the City and the Port in what is best described as a “stealth” operation rather than COB being blind to ABC Recycling’s dereliction.  
Once ABC was up and running, without prior SEPA evaluation or even a proper Stormwater Permit they managed to accumulate an impressive number of DOE citations for Best Practice violations at the site where they loaded scrap metal from two immense piles onto dump trucks.  In addition, they were cited 60+ times for heavy metal pollution of stormwater runoff,  all of which might not have come to public attention had they not already made themselves obnoxious by the insane noises associated with their loading operations.
A better live illustration of Tip’s assertion that the Port Commission intends to continue (or even to solicit) environmentally questionable activities at the expense of broader community goals could not be imagined. And the fact that in this instance, they were so anxious to allow a totally anomalous activity owned by a non-U.S. company to jump into a not yet detoxified Brownfield site without public notification or public comment that they didn’t even blink when ABC disregarded the mandated permitting for that site (BMC 16.30.160).  This should dispel any doubts about which side the Three Wise Men are on—Not ours!!
David Netboy


Alan McConchie

Jan 10, 2024

I completely agree that we need to increase the number of port commissioners to get a more representative body that better reflects the range of interests and perspectives in our community. However, as we’ve seen the port commission races become increasingly partisan and politicized, we have little reason to believe that five commissioners will be any more representative than three, if we use the same tired old single-seat district style of election that we’ve been using all these years. Whether we use the same 5 districts that the county council uses, or go through yet another contentious process of back-and-forth gerrymandering to draw different districts, we can expect that the winner of each district will easily predicted before the votes are even counted, just like the current county council races are. Expect the 5 member commission to devolve into 2 (or 3) safe Republican-aligned seats elected from the rural part of the county and 3 (or 2) safe Democrat-aligned seats elected from Bellingham. Good luck finding any free-thinkers who are interested in compromise, and good luck unseating any incumbents.

Nor do we want to elect those 5 members in their own at-large races across the whole county. Then you still get the same 51% of voters who pick all the candidates. Again, same old group-think and lowest-common-denominator campaigns, with all of the commissioners as carbon copies of each other. We don’t want that either.

So what’s the answer? We should use the Multi-winner version of Ranked Choice Voting to elect these port commissioners, either all five of them at once, or staggered with two in one year and three in another. There would be no districts, just multiple commissioners elected at once using proportional representation across the entire county. If you’re electing 3 commissioners at once, then a common interest group only needs 25%+1 vote to win a seat. If electing 5 commissioners at once, then a group needs even less than 20% to have a voice at the table.

What’s the benefit? If there are communities of interest that aren’t clustered in a single district, they can pool their votes and elect someone who speaks for them, and advocates for their perspective. Blue collar city folk who want more waterfront jobs could have a voice (which they currently do not). As could lefty rural environmentalists who are currently ignored by their pro-pollution county councilors. Even minority voters currently spread all across the county could pool their votes to get at least one seat on the commission, instead of diluting their votes across 5 separate gerrymandered districts.

When you think about what we really want from a 5-member commission—that it should reflect all the people in our county as a microcosm of all our perspectives—we need a system of proportional representation like this, rather than more of the same with gerrymandered single-winner districts. Otherwise, we’re just going to get the same old “five wise men” instead of three.


George Dyson

Jan 10, 2024

From the You-Can’t-Make-This-Stuff-Up Department:

“Three men is enough.”  

—Port Commissioner Scott Walker, in a 2012 discussion in response to a proposal to expand the Commission to five members—with Harriet Spanel sitting in the front row.


Carol Follett

Jan 13, 2024

Thank you for the reminder, Tip. I agree that expanding the commission is a good idea and ranked choice is a better way to vote, Alan. However, they are seperate issues at this time, right? Is any organisation working on a new version of that petition for the earliest ballot opportunity? I would love to share and sign it!


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