Bellingham is preparing to remove pockets of mercury contamination from the Bellingham waterfront in March.
The Georgia-Pacific West site, located near downtown on West Laurel Street, a 64-acre stretch of land, is one of 12 cleanup sites in the Bellingham Bay Demonstration Pilot project. This project is an effort by federal, tribal, state and local governments to get rid of contamination and restore the bay’s natural habitat, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology’s website.
The former Georgia-Pacific paper mill used mercury in bleaching and pulping wood fiber, and released wastewater into the bay from 1965-71.
The plant closed in 2001, according to the Port of Bellingham’s website. The Port of Bellingham purchased the property in 2005.
This is phase two of the Port of Bellingham’s $1.8 million cleanup project. The first phase of the interim project consisted of removing more than 8,000 tons of petroleum-contaminated soils and debris. Phase one was completed in August 2012, according to the Department of Ecology’s website.
The two contaminated pockets being removed are about the size of two or three parking stalls each, said Dustin Terpening, spokesperson for the Department of Ecology.
“They’re not very large, but it is some of the highest concentration of contamination we have on the site,” Terpening said.
The contaminated soil will be mixed with sulfur and cement to create concrete blocks, Terpening said. Workers will then remove the blocks from the site.
“That essentially stabilizes the mercury, and then the concrete blocks will be transferred to a hazardous waste facility,” Terpening said.
The Department of Ecology has funded courses at Western focused on the science and management of contaminated sites. Professor Ruth Sofield teaches the course. Sofield has studied toxicology since 1998 and is familiar with the contamination in the bay.
Groundwater can pick up chemicals from the soil and sometimes carry the chemicals into surface water, Sofield said. By removing the areas of contaminated soil, the project will attempt to eliminate the source of chemicals flowing into the bay, she said.
“This is a really good idea to try to stop it,” Sofield said. “It’s removing the source of mercury.”
Sofield took a group of students to a marine cleanup site in Anacortes to study impacts of contamination, she said.
Sofield does not encourage her students to get involved with cleanup without proper safety training because there is a possibility of getting mercury poisoning if not careful. Mercury can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and the immune system, according to medicinenet.com.
The cleanup is a necessity, said Western junior Chris Barrett, a biological anthropology major.
“It’s crucial for the sustainability of both the people who live around the bay and the wildlife,” Barrett said.
The university could benefit from the bay cleanup, Barrett said.
“It’s a possibility to get some biology or chemistry students down there doing some cool things,” he said. “Once it’s cleaned up, it opens doors to both communal use and opportunities that students and community members alike could utilize.”
The whole city of Bellingham is likely to benefit from the cleanup, Sofield said.
“There have been lots of examples of these sites being cleaned up where they become a public treasure, so I think there’s a large benefit to the community, not just Western,” Sofield said.
The Port of Bellingham is planning to use the land for development, Terpening said.
The Port of Bellingham will cover the cost of the project with up to half of their expenses reimbursed by the Department of Ecology through a Washington state remedial action grant, Terpening said. This grant gives funds to allow local governments to study and clean hazardous waste, according to the department’s website.
This portion of the project is scheduled to be completed May 2013, Terpening said.
Georgia-Pacific West is bordered by the Whatcom Waterway, another site due to begin cleanup summer 2013, according to the Department of Ecology’s website.