Bellingham’s Dioxin-Contaminated Mountain

by Wendy Harris


Have you seen the large, white mountain that suddenly appeared at the Cornwall Avenue Landfill? The site is adjacent to Bellingham Bay at the end of Cornwall Avenue, and the mountain can be viewed from the northern end of Boulevard Park, or along the South Bay trail and Boulevard Street.

The mountain consists of two large piles of dioxin-contaminated sediment dredged from Squalicum Harbor. It is covered with a white plastic sheet held in place with sandbags. The city and port, as co-owners of the landfill, obtained approval from the Washington State Department of Ecology (DOE) to dump this material at the landfill. The public was never advised that the sediment contained dioxin.

This was done as an “interim action” under the Washington Model Toxic Control Act (MTCA) to promote the “beneficial re-use” of solid waste. How a hazardous substance became part of an alleged clean-up action for a waterfront remediation site is an interesting story, and one that the media has failed to report. This story needs to be told because the city, now sole owner of the property, is proceeding with plans for waterfront redevelopment and these plans include recreational, residential and commercial development on top of the contaminated soil.

Why Was the Dioxin Mountain Created?

The dioxin mountain was never part of the original plans for the waterfront. Bellingham Bay is polluted with dioxin from industrial sites that existed along the waterfront. While the port regularly dredges Squalicum Harbor to maintain navigability, it always had access to affordable open water disposal sites in Bellingham Bay and Rosario Strait. When the port and city began jointly planning for waterfront redevelopment, it was assumed that access to open water disposal sites would continue.

All of that changed in 2010, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers updated its standards for open water disposal of dioxin-contaminated sediment in Puget Sound (over rigorous objections by the ports of Washington). The port needed to dredge 40,000 cubic yards of sediment at Gate 3 of Squalicum Outer Harbor. Tests from 2007 and 2010 indicated that dioxin levels exceeded the new standards. The port was required to use an upland disposal site, an extremely costly alternative to open water disposal. In the context of the waterfront redevelopment, the new disposal standards could cost the port and city millions of dollars.

The port looked for ways to reduce sediment disposal costs for the Gate 3 project, and found one through a proposed “interim action” for the Cornwall Avenue Landfill. The city concurred. The landfill is one of 12 contaminated waterfront sites targeted for remediation under the Washington Model Toxic Control Act (MTCA), as well as the site for some of the earliest proposed waterfront development.

An interim action is a temporary or partial clean-up of an MTCA site, and is intended to improve site conditions before a full clean-up is achieved. Unfortunately, the interim action has been misused by municipalities seeking to delay or reduce remediation costs. An interim action is also exempt from normal procedural requirements under state and local environmental laws, making it easier to avoid public transparency.

The port’s proposal consisted of a $1.5 million dollar “temporary” stormwater plan for the Cornwall Avenue Landfill. The landfill contains a layer of soil on top of hazardous refuse. The port claimed that stormwater run-off at the site infiltrated soil, landfill and groundwater, discharging toxins into Bellingham Bay. It proposed dumping Gate 3 dredged sediment at the landfill as a cap to reduce stormwater infiltration until a final clean-up planned is approved.

How Hazardous Is Dioxin?

There is reason to be concerned about a waterfront mountain of dioxin. Dioxins are a dangerous class of chemical contaminants formed during industrial processes, including paper pulp bleaching, manufacture of herbicides and pesticides, and production of chlorinated plastics. They are also formed during combustion processes, including waste incineration, forest fires, and burning yard trash.

In 2011, the EPA issued a Toxicity Release Inventory indicating that from 2009 to 2010, air releases of dioxin rose 10 percent and total releases, such as landfill disposal, increased 18 percent. There is no safe, practical method of disposing of the dioxin that has accumulated in the environment, although several new technologies have been successful on a small scale and hold promise for the future.


Dioxin! An interview with Dr. Linda Burnbaum, Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (former Director of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Toxicology)

Dioxin creates significant health risks because it is resistant to degradation and it remains in the environment for long periods of time, with particularly high concentrations in sediment and soil. Dioxin is fat-soluble, rather than water-soluble. As a result, it tends to accumulate in the tissue of living organisms, a process known as bioaccumulation. The concentration of dioxin increases as one moves up the food chain, a process known as biomagnification. Most human exposure to dioxin is from diet, particularly consumption of meat, dairy and fish. Virtually all Americans have dioxin in their blood and the amount of dioxin in our bodies increases as we age.

It is important to avoid any additional exposure to dioxin because no amount of dioxin is safe. Dioxin exposure creates a higher risk of cancer than any other man-made chemical. Dioxin is a powerful hormone-disrupting chemical. It binds to a cell’s hormone receptor, changing the cell’s function and causing a wide range of harmful effects, from cancers and reduced immune system function to nervous system disorders, miscarriages and birth deformity. The effects of dioxin can be passed along from parent to child.

At the same time, U.S. standards for dioxin exposure are outdated and insufficiently protective. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) needs to issue an updated dioxin assessment before standards can be revised. So far, the public has been waiting more than 25 years. Hopes that the assessment would finally be issued last year were dashed. Political pressure from lobbyists representing the farm, food, chemical and manufacturing industries has politicized the process and prevented issuance of an updated dioxin assessment. Because Washington state’s dioxin standards are connected to EPA assessment information, they are also outdated.  The resulting situation is rather scary.

Dioxin is ubiquitous in our environment, there is no way to avoid exposure, and there is no known level that is safe.

Our only option is to make choices that limit the degree to which we are exposed, but this will be more difficult if the city is successful in redeveloping part of the waterfront on top of dioxin-contaminated soil.

It’s All About Money

The interim action at the Cornwall Avenue Landfill provided the port and the city with a financial windfall, suggesting that it was driven by economic incentive. The port obtained an inexpensive upland disposal site for its dredged sediment, and because it was part of an MTCA remediation project, the state paid half the cost from a dedicated state fund. The interim action provided the city with sediment needed for future development, including a waterfront park, shoreline trails, and residential and commercial buildings. Purchase and transport of clean sediment is expensive, with estimates running as high as $1 million dollars.

Moreover, the Cornwall Avenue Landfill is the landing site for a new $8 million dollar overwater walkway connecting Boulevard Park to downtown. The city is under grant deadline pressure to develop the walkway as expeditiously as possible and the interim action provided the opportunity. The landfill is regulated under the Whatcom Waterway 2007 Consent Decree and Clean-up Action Plan (the “Consent Decree”), a legal contract filed in court by the port, the city and DOE. The interim action required formal amendment to the Consent Decree. As initially drafted, the Consent Decree failed to mention the overwater walkway. The city ensured that the Amended Decree contained a provision authorizing development of the overwater walkway before completion of site clean-up.

Flawed Public Process

The interim action triggered two separate public notice and comment periods and, during each one, important health and safety information was withheld. Of course, by this point, the entire proposal was already a done deal. The port, the city and DOE discussed, reviewed and revised the interim agreement for seven months prior to commencement of the public processes. Plans were so firm that the starting date for interim action construction was determined before the starting dates for the public comment periods.

The port was responsible for public notice as part of the SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) process. It issued a “Determination of Mitigated Non-Significance” for the Cornwall Avenue Landfill proposal. The SEPA public notice failed to disclose that the dredged sediment was contaminated with dioxin. The Washington State Supreme Court views SEPA as an environmental full disclosure law. The port and city, apparently, do not.

DOE was responsible for public notice under the Washington Model Toxic Control Act (MTCA).

It failed to mention dioxin in documents specifically drafted for public notice, such as a press release and a PowerPoint presentation. Neither was the information contained in the DOE Site Register, which, under the MTCA, is required to be issued bi-weekly to advise the public, in non-technical language, about the status of MTCA remediation sites. DOE had actually stopped issuing the Site Register for budget reasons, until it was pointed out during public comment that this was a statutory violation.

And another important fact was withheld: the dredged sediment exceeded more than the standard for open water disposal. It exceeded the MTCA clean-up standard for unrestricted land use, in some places by double the permitted level. Contaminated soil was dumped at the landfill through an interim action loophole. However, to include the interim action in the final site clean-up plan, (which has always been the intention), the city will need DOE’s approval to reduce the MTCA clean-up level for unrestricted land use (i.e., residential, commercial and recreational) to the restricted land use standard applicable for industrial operations.

A reduced clean-up standard would increase permitted dioxin soil contamination from 11 parts per trillion to 1500 parts per trillion. This is a 100 fold increase in carcinogenic exposure, one of the highest exposure rates in the nation. The port and city privately discussed this matter with, and obtained favorable response from, DOE staff. Although this is a matter of public concern, you will not find this issue discussed in any official record.

DOE defends its compliance with MTCA public notice requirements by noting that dioxin is discussed in “Section 3.3 and Table 1 of Exhibit A of the Amendment (to the Whatcom Waterway 2007 Consent Decree and Clean-up Action Plan).” In other words, DOE does not believe it had an obligation to specifically inform the public that the proposed interim action involved dioxin exceeding permissible exposure levels for planned use. Rather, the burden is on the public to review the amendments to the underlying legal contract governing an MTCA site. This is a complex and lengthy document that is not readily comprehensible without a technical and/or legal background.

The port, the city and DOE are hiding important information, often in plain sight. They are aware of the controversy that can be generated by proposals to reuse dioxin-contaminated material. The public opposition is sometimes strong enough to prevent a proposal from moving forward. This author believes that the three entities acted purposefully to minimize the risk of public opposition to the proposed interim action at the Cornwall Avenue Landfill.

Problems Plague Interim Action Plan

The interim action has been completed. The port, with city concurrence, dredged Gate 3 and transferred the sediment to its Laurel Street property for “dewatering.” The contaminated soil was amended with Portland cement, a process that is referred to as “stabilization.” This technique is used primarily to strengthen the end product. Stabilization may slow down the mobilization of dioxin into the environment, but it does not prevent it (no field studies exist.) And while stabilization might not be the newest and most effective technology, it is the simplest and the least expensive.

To protect the public and the environment from dioxin contamination, the port and city are primarily relying upon the use of a white plastic sheet, held in place with sandbags, as currently visible from the site. Because the public was not advised that the soil contained dioxin, the only objections were from local environmental organizations such as Resources, Sierra Club and People for Puget Sound, and a few informed citizens.

Problems were encountered from the very beginning of the interim action, suggesting inadequate planning and design. The port struggled with achieving the appropriate consistency during the soil-amendment process. As reported by the port’s consultant:

Initially, it was anticipated that the stabilized sediment would be placed and compacted directly after transport to the Cornwall site. The port and Ecology subsequently decided that the material would need to be stockpiled under cover for several years, and that it would need to maintain a soil-like consistency until it was regraded and placed as compacted fill as part of the final cleanup action.

Additional problems were encountered during site preparation. The port’s construction plans incorporated the use of cover soil at the site without a sufficient understanding of soil integrity. According to the construction report, as the port was preparing the site, the “upper portion of subgrade soil deteriorated rapidly under equipment traffic.” This was blamed on the wet weather. The port needed to import additional aggregate material to stabilize the site and replace the cover soil; the construction report indicated that “a significant amount of imported granular fill was used to complete construction….” The interim action was supposed to recycle existing material. Instead, it required a significant amount of new material, and generated waste from unusable cover soil that was deposited in a spoils stockpile.

The port also miscalculated the amount and the depth of soil on site. It believed that two to four feet of soil covered hazardous landfill waste. The interim plans relied upon the first foot of site cover soil to build a berm, construct roads and dig a large ditch. However, excavation of the soil unearthed hazardous landfill refuse, exposing it to rain, and increasing opportunity for environmental release of dangerous toxins. The landfill refuse needed to be excavated and stockpiled for offsite disposal at an approved upland facility. In sum, the interim action excavated the hazardous waste that it was intended to cover and protect.

Additionally, the Cornwall Avenue Landfill is unstable land located within a seismic hazard area. It is subject to erosion, liquefaction, and other factors that indicate a very high response to seismic shaking. Rather than finding a more suitable location to deposit dioxin-contaminated waste, the port issued a report indicating that the interim action would not increase the seismic hazard that already existed. Later, when analyzing the pathways for dioxin mobility into the environment, the port ignored the issue of earthquakes.

Beneficial Reuse Provisions

The real question is why this was permitted to happen. Aside from the fact that important information was withheld from the public, and that the media did little more than to disseminate the same press releases issued by the port, Washington has a beneficial reuse policy that encourages recycling of solid waste.

Under WAC 175-350-200, a solid waste can be recycled as a product or used as an ingredient in a manufacturing process as long as it does not pose a threat to human health or the environment. This policy responds to the disposal problems created by past and current generation of waste. Many designated waste disposal sites have reached capacity and are closed, and many others are nearing capacity. This is a pressing problem for the nation’s ports, which must protect navigation through constant dredging.

According to DOE, they have no official policy regarding the beneficial reuse of dioxin and rely instead on local and other regulations, but the proposal presented by the city and port relied heavily on DOE’s MTCA rules and seemingly violated beneficial use provisions.

The interim action was primarily motivated by an attempt to avoid expensive upland disposal and was of questionable necessity. It likely resulted in environmental harm and created unnecessary cost and waste. It was contingent on crucial design and monitoring plans that were not adequately established, including prevention of dioxins from leaching into groundwater, proper capping of sediment and the ensuring of cap integrity through institutional controls.

Under normal procedures, beneficial reuse requests go through a formal determination process that includes public comment. In this case, the port exploited an MTCA provision that exempts interim actions from the procedural requirements of state law. Therefore, a beneficial reuse determination was not required. Although the port was not excused from the substantive provisions of the beneficial reuse laws, there was no public transparency and the weight of the evidence suggests that DOE failed to provide proper enforcement and oversight of the project.

What Now?

The dioxin contaminated soil will remain at the Cornwall Avenue Landfill, under its protective sheet of plastic, until the city and DOE move forward with a final clean-up plan. The city, now sole owner of the landfill, intends to incorporate the contaminated soil into the final plan, possibly by requesting a reduced clean-up standard. This would require on-site containment of the dioxin. However, the interim action was not designed to contain hazardous waste, and a plastic sheet and sandbags are not a permanent solution.

The public will be given an opportunity to comment on final clean-up plans, and can request that the dioxin mountain be removed, or that site design be upgraded for adequate containment. This assumes, of course, that the public is advised that dioxin exists under that white waterfront mountain. In the meanwhile, it would be prudent for the public to keep a sharp eye on other waterfront redevelopment plans.


• Some information was obtained from public record requests and email correspondence with staff from the city of Bellingham, the Port of Bellingham and the Washington State Department of Ecology.

• Information was obtained from the Model Toxics Control Act website maintained by the state Department of Ecology

— Cornwall Avenue Landfill at and the

— Whatcom Waterway at

• This includes the Cornwall Avenue Landfill Interim Action Plan, the Interim Action Completion Report, First Amendment to Consent Decree Re: Whatcom Waterway Site and First Amendment to Agreed Order No. 1778. Of particular interest is the Cornwall Landfill Responsiveness Summary, dated 8/25/2011, reflecting public comments and Department of Ecology’s responses.

• Landau Associates article, “Blending two projects puts dredge spoils to good use”, September 27, 2012, Daily Journal of Commerce, Environmental Outlook,

• Additional information was obtained from review of Squalicum Harbor Gate 3 project documents obtained from the Port of Bellingham.

Wendy Harris is a retired citizen who comments on development, mitigation and environmental impacts.

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