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Trees grow out of an abandoned fuel tank at a former pulp mill on the Bellingham waterfront. Photo by John Ryan.

Trees grow out of an abandoned fuel tank at a former pulp mill on the Bellingham waterfront. Photo by John Ryan.


Getting The Mercury Out

John Ryan

An old industrial site on the downtown Bellingham waterfront has extreme levels of mercury contamination. The chlorine plant that spewed the mercury closed a decade ago. The Port of Bellingham is proposing to remove some of the worst toxic crud from the site in the coming months. KUOW's John Ryan reports.


The Georgia–Pacific pulp mill was a beehive of activity and an economic engine in Bellingham for decades. These days, it's fenced off and quiet, a 64–acre wasteland. Some of the oil and chemicals used to make all that pulp and toilet paper have long outlasted the mill itself.

The Port of Bellingham now owns the industrial site. Brian Gouran with the port moves an old metal garbage can out of the way. It covers a pipe sticking out of the ground. The pipe brims with thick black oil.

Gouran: "That there is what the contaminated soil would look like, kind of like, almost an asphalt once you get it mixed up with soil. It's a really thick, viscous oil, which works to our advantage in this case that it didn't migrate very far. And so, because it's so thick, it kind of almost went straight down. Even though it's been 40–plus years, it hasn't migrated too far outside this ring."

The ring surrounds what's left of a 10–million–gallon tank that stored fuel for the pulp mill. It's been abandoned so long it now has tall cottonwood trees growing in it.

From day one, the tank had no bottom. Its builders assumed the oil was too thick to soak into the ground. They were wrong. The oil has slowly soaked into the ground and contaminated the groundwater right next to the Whatcom Waterway and Bellingham Bay.

Gouran: "So we want to try to make sure the oil, the actual saturated oil, does not get out into Bellingham Bay."

While oil spilling into the bay could be disastrous, this black goo is far from the most toxic stuff that Georgia–Pacific left behind.

Sound: (door opens)

Gouran: "This is the shop portion of the former chlorine plant."

Georgia–Pacific used mercury to make chlorine for bleaching its pulp.

Gouran: "And all that's remaining is essentially a large shell, mostly wood superstructure with concrete columns. This whole area was filled with mercury, elemental mercury in these large troughs. Some of that mercury escaped as vapor."

Mercury is poison, and it's potent stuff. Health officials tell people to avoid eating fish if it has even one part per million of mercury. Soil beneath parts of the Georgia–Pacific site is tens of thousands of times more polluted than that. The Port of Bellingham plans to remove about 450 tons of the soil next spring. There's so much mercury in it, you can see the little shiny droplets of the element known as quicksilver. In one spot beneath the chlorine plant, the soil is 10 percent mercury.

Dyson: "That's extraordinary. That's like off the charts of anything you see anywhere."

George Dyson has lived and worked on the Bellingham waterfront for 20 years. He's a historian of technology and a port watchdog.

Dyson: "We have one of the worst mercury dumps in North America, right here, in supposedly what's this beautiful, clean place. It's just strange that we're not more actively solving that problem."

The port wants to remove mercury from the three small areas of the industrial site with the worst contamination. It would leave the rest for further study and eventual cleanup. The proposal would leave behind soil with 50 times more mercury than is usually allowed after a complete cleanup.

Various government agencies have been studying and talking about how to clean up toxic waste in Bellingham and its bay for nearly 20 years. But nobody has actually removed any mercury yet. So removing any mercury–tainted soil from the Georgia–Pacific site would be a first for the whole city. George Dyson says cleanup should have begun years ago, and there's no excuse for waiting any longer.

Dyson: "It's significant. They actually are taking some mercury off the site and taking it elsewhere. But what's wrong is we should be cleaning up the whole site, and it should just all be done at once. Sort of like you have cancer, you don't go in and like, well, we're going to take the worst tumor and leave the others."

The port bought the Georgia–Pacific property for $10 in hopes of redeveloping and reviving the Bellingham waterfront. By doing so, the port took on the expensive responsibility for cleaning up the toxic waste. Estimated cleanup cost: $17 million. The interim cleanup proposed by the port is expected to cost just $2.5 million, with half the expense covered by the state.

Port officials say until they know what land use is planned for the site, it makes sense to hold off on a final cleanup.

And just what do you do with something as toxic as mercury? It's an element, so there's no way to break it down into something harmless. In this case, the port wants to haul it east of the Cascades, to one of two hazardous waste landfills near the Columbia River.

In Bellingham, I'm John Ryan, KUOW News.

The Washington Department of Ecology is taking public comments on the proposed cleanup of the Georgia–Pacific mill site. The comment period ends on Wednesday, August 3.

© Copyright 2011, KUOW

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