by Bill Craven
It was not a good night for ABC Recycling, the British Columbia company with an existing scrap metal operation on the Bellingham waterfront. It has hopes for its first industrial metal shredder on Marine Drive, just north of the city limits, to provide material to the waterfront for eventual shipment overseas.
Two neighborhoods, Birchwood and South Hill, combined forces for a community meeting at Alderwood Elementary on September 6. More than 200 residents packed the gym for presentations from the two neighborhoods and for a long question-and-answer session with city- and county-elected officials and staff. The questions included many from the audience, all of which were completely against the metal shredder.
The two neighborhoods not only jointly organized the meeting, but they have a new community website, www.savethewaterfront.org, to spread their message and to collect funds for the highly regarded Seattle land use law firm that has been hired. A lightly edited video of the entire meeting is on that website (per request).
Letter From Law Firm
The first bit of news from the meeting was a letter to the county from that law firm, Bricklin and Newman. The letter stated that the shredder proposal is subject to a conditional-use permit and is not simply a permitted use. If that holds up, the shredder could be subject to a variety of environmental and public safety conditions.
The city and county representatives in attendance neither accepted nor rejected the law firm’s conclusion. Because ABC has not yet filed an application, the public representatives consistently said that any substantive comments would be premature.
Additional information from ABC Recycling is in the accompanying interview with Riley Sweeney, ABC’s Community Relations and Government Affairs Manager.
There were reflections by county officials about the situation a couple of years ago that successfully quashed the potential expansion of fossil fuel exports from Cherry Point. In that situation, a series of extensions to a county emergency moratorium was ultimately concluded in a complex negotiation that included county leaders, environmental and labor groups, and the Cherry Point Industries.
The analogy seems to be that, since the proposed shredder site is zoned for heavy industry, a moratorium on new heavy industrial development could stop the shredder while the rezoning process plays out.
Rezoning could reflect the current reality of the neighborhood which has dramatically changed since the heavy industrial zone was created. The area is now full of housing, schools, and other uses. The future zoning could be light industry or mixed use or even affordable housing.
This was a shared memory among veteran elected officials to remind the public about how layers of government cooperated to block the coal terminal. It is not really a blueprint for stopping the shredder. The cold reality is that there seems little likelihood that the County Council (now or after the November election) is poised to impose an emergency moratorium (with the necessary 5 votes for an emergency ordinance).
In any event, as soon as ABC Recycling files its application, it would be vested under current zoning, which would mean it would not be bound by any moratorium that might come later. So, at least for now, that hopeful bubble floated at the meeting seems improbable.
As it turns out, the process is grinding along. An emergency moratorium failed at the County Council, and attention is now turning to a nonemergency moratorium that would take four (not five) votes to pass. A legal notice for this proceeding has been posted in The Bellingham Herald with the opportunity for public comment closing on October 16. (Reference file code is SEPA 2023-00062.) The moratorium would last for one year and prohibit industrial land uses in areas zoned for heavy industrial activities that are adjacent to unincorporated residential areas.
South Hill neighbors have been complaining about the noise from the dumping of trucks of metal and the dumping of metal into the holds of bulk carrier ships, and there seemed to be some traction at the meeting to the idea of updating the city and the county noise ordinances.
The introductory slide show at the meeting had a short video about the noise at the waterfront. Both Mayor Seth Fleetwood and County Executive Satpal Sidhu seemed open to amendments to their respective city and county existing noise ordinances. Again, that is a long process within both governments that won’t likely affect the scrap metal piles or loading activities for quite some time.
But, depending on how it is written, an amended city noise ordinance could prove problematic for ABC since conditions such as decibel level, intensity of noise, and hours at which noise is allowed could be imposed.
Mayor Seth Fleetwood has invited the City Council to consider amendments to the city noise ordinance. That process has just begun, so it too early to prejudge the outcome. However, from the perspective of the neighborhoods most affected by the noise, the best outcome would be to strengthen the ordinance so that noises that emanate from a location should be assessed by how they affect nearby residences. The current noise ordinance is not explicit in that regard.
New Noise Ordinance
A new noise ordinance would not affect the shredder site as much as it would affect the ABC’s operations at the waterfront, for a couple of reasons. Unlike the waterfront operation which loads ships until 3:00 a.m., the shredder would operate during normal business hours according to information from ABC presented at the meeting.
And, while industrial scale shredders can be incredibly loud, this one will be enclosed with sound-damping construction as will be the building where nonmetallic substances are removed from the scrap automobiles and other discarded metal objects.
ABC promised to provide more detailed information about the amount of sound attenuation at a later time. Because of the regular business hours of the proposed shredder and its enclosure, the county noise ordinance may not be as much of an issue for ABC.
Several other issues were raised at the meeting. These included questions about what stormwater and wastewater requirements would be in place for the shredder, whether a solid waste permit would be required, and whether any effects on groundwater resources would occur.
Air Quality Issues
Subsequent to the meeting, Whatcom Watch checked in with the Northwest Clean Air Agency about a possible air quality permit. While such a permit would be required according to Agata McIntyre, the engineering manager at the agency, its terms will depend on the controls installed by ABC Recycling (which will be reflected in its permit application).
Like the public officials at the meeting, McIntyre noted that no application has yet been filed. ABC will need to install “Best Available Control Technology” (a regulatory term) to meet state and federal requirements for particulate emissions, toxics, and volatile organic chemicals.
She pointed to a Tacoma metal shredding operation of Schnitzer Steel which is installing several layers of pollution controls as an example of what may occur in Bellingham, provided the two facilities are of the same scale.
One area where ABC Recycling did provide new information to the public concerned truck traffic. ABC Recycling personnel said that an average of 3-5 trucks per hour would transport metal to the shredder or take shredded metal to the waterfront.
That is up to 40 trucks a day that would traverse designated truck routes, most likely from Canada south to Bennett and Marine Drive to unload at the shredder; and Marine Drive or Bennett to the Bakerview onramp for I-5 to State to Chestnut to Cornwall to the shipping terminal at the Port of Bellingham to take shredded material to await the next ship.
ABC said that all the material at the shredder would be shredded and trucked to the shipping terminal each day to eliminate metal piles at the Marine Drive location. Needless to say, the number of trucks per day was met with audible gasps of disapproval from the audience.
Additionally, the shredder site has an out-of-use railroad spur that goes to the waterfront. ABC said that it is working with the BNSF railway to see if materials can be brought to the shredder by rail or taken from the shredder to the waterfront by rail.
ABC Recycling had a bad night, but the process to build a shredder is a marathon that won’t be determined by a single community meeting. That said, ABC got a good dose of questions, only a few of which were asked at the meeting because of time constraints.
An early peek at those questions revealed two main areas of concern: first was a focus on noise and pollution issues at the shredder and the effects on nearby neighborhoods; second and almost as numerous, were questions about whether the entire ABC scrap metal operation (the waterfront and the shredder combined) were consistent with Bellingham’s community goals.
“Why must this type of facility be located along the waterfront near residences, directly cancelling out current efforts to restore and revitalize the waterfront through cleanup and new parks? Why haven’t they come forward to the community with any information about this project?”
ABC has the benefit of its support from the port and a curious zoning situation (with no written decision) from the city (discussed in the sidebar.) But, at the waterfront, it could be vulnerable to a new city noise ordinance or a review and a new decision on zoning. In the county, ABC’s proposed shredder is vulnerable because of the gauntlet of the permitting process at the county and regional levels, including compliance with state and federal air quality measures.
In both locations, the neighborhoods are opposed and are taking their messages to elected officials where the city and county councils could have new faces after the November elections.
Noise and Zoning
The South Hill Neighborhood Association (SHNA) continues to press the City of Bellingham to make a correct zoning decision regarding the ABC Recycling scrap metal recycling collection and storage at the Log Pond on the waterfront. While ABC is operating under a lease from the Port of Bellingham, the zoning is determined by the city.
Although no formal decision was ever made by the city, ABC is operating under a zoning section of the municipal code that allows “water-related and dependent land uses such as aquaculture, barge loading facilities, boat/ship building, boat repair, dry dock, net repair, seafood processing, cargo terminal, webhouse, and offices supporting the same.” This section does not mention storing scrap metal in piles.
No Handshake Deals
Scott Jones, president of the SHNA, argues that Bellingham needs to make an actual determination and not allow ABC to operate only with what amounts to a handshake. He also thinks the handshake refers to the wrong section of the zoning regulations. He points to a different section of the code which authorizes land uses “used for the collection and processing of metals.” While the Log Pond is not used for processing, it is clearly used for the collection of scrap metal, he has said in numerous emails to city officials.
The key to this second provision and what is so compelling to the South Hill opponents of the scrap metal operation at the Log Pond is this: If this second zoning section is used (the one pressed by South Hill), separate provisions of the code require any such activities to be enclosed in a building and to stop operations at 7 p.m. If that section were in place and enforced by the city, ABC Recycling would face obstacles it may not be able to circumvent and which could cause it to withdraw from Bellingham, or so goes the thinking from South Hill.
City Not Helping
Thus far, the city has not been helping the neighbors. In April, the City Attorney’s office called the scrap metal a “raw material similar to other materials that are staged on the property … such as boulders … destined for an Army Corps project at the mouth of the Columbia River.” Jones was not amused. Scrap metal “consists of ferrous metal with specific storage restrictions and known hazards related to heavy metal pollutants and fire risks. Boulders, are, well, rock.” He also pointed out that the transportation methods for these materials differ: Boulders are shipped by barge, metal is transported by bulk carrier ships.
In August, the Planning and Community Development department chimed in and supported the idea that the scrap could be considered a “barge loading facility” and that the section preferred by Jones was not appropriate. Jones is persevering. If it walks like a recycling collection center, talks like a recycling collection center, and is run by a recycling business, Jones thinks it is a recycling collection center. The city appears to think that ABC’s metal piles are just more rocks going on a barge.
Interview with Riley Sweeney
ABC Recycling is likely to invest about $30 million to build an industrial metal shredder on Marine Drive, Riley Sweeney said. Sweeney is the company’s new Community Relations and Government Affairs Manager in Bellingham, lured from a former city position with the City of Ferndale. One internet site says that ABC’s annual revenue is about $22.7 million with perhaps 90 total employees, but those numbers can’t be independently verified.
Sweeney thought the Alderwood meeting reflected legitimate community concerns and questions, but he knows Bellingham and knows the public will always be engaged in major projects with potential environmental effects in this community. He is optimistic that, as more information is forthcoming, some of the concerns will be addressed.
He provided updated numbers about future employment: He said that there are 10 workers now at the waterfront and that two crews of 30 longshoremen each are hired when a ship comes in for the loading of processed scrap metal. At the proposed shredder, he said that the initial plan is for 12-15 employees to be hired which could double depending on the growth of the business.
Sweeney clarified the reason the waterfront operation extends into the early morning hours. He said that the longshoremen have to work a full shift, so, if a second shift is curtailed by a noise ordinance, it would be problematic for the company since the company has to pay for the full shift. The first shift would work from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. with the second shift working from 6 p.m. until 2:30 a.m.
ABC would have to decide if it is possible for it to continue in this area if work had to stop before the end of the second shift. Also, Sweeney said the ships will only stay in port for a certain number of days to get loaded, which is another reason for the two shifts. He said ABC has talked to the union about changing the hours of the shifts, but that the discussion won’t start in earnest until after the union concludes its nationwide bargaining agreement.
No Decibel Limit
he German company from which ABC is purchasing its “sound attenuating” buildings on Marine Drive is ILG International GmbH | Industrielärmschutz für Recyclinganlagen (ilg-international.com). From this website, it appears that the German firm asks the client how quiet it needs to be and builds a structure to meet that request. One wonders what standard ABC might direct them to meet, since the Whatcom County noise ordinance does not contain a decibel limit.
Sweeney said he would provide more information about the degree of “sound attenuating” when he gets it.
Sweeney also said he would check on any additional permits (solid waste, air quality) and provide information when it is available.
Stormwater would be controlled at the shredder site, and Sweeney thinks stormwater storage would be underground. He was not certain about wastewater treatment or disposal or a connection to Bellingham’s treatment plant. He thinks the local landfill (RDS) would take the bulk of the nonmetal residue from the shredder (foam, rubber, plastic) as alternative daily cover, although that may prove controversial since the Department of Ecology has written that the nonmetal residue may contain hazardous materials.
Sweeney expects the land use permit application to be filed by the end of the year. It’s a bit of a mystery how ABC believes they’ll have enough details for a complete land use permit application and adequate environmental review under state law without knowing what other permits might be required and what equipment and operational constraints those permits might impose.
Is ABC really going to spend millions of dollars on an imported enclosure system without knowing if it will meet dust control, solid waste, emissions and noise requirements?
Bill Craven is a retired environ- mental professional with more than 30 years experience as a legislative policy consultant on re- source issues and as an advocate in state legislatures and for nonprofit organizations.