The Encyclopedia of Public Health tells us that "there are three main direct public health risks from open water dumping: (1) occupational accidents, injuries, and exposures; (2) exposure of the public to hazardous or toxic materials washed up on beaches; and (3) human consumption of marine organisms that have been contaminated by open water disposal. Periodically, medical and other wastes from both legal and illegal dumping have washed up on beaches, resulting in exposure to beachgoers and, in some cases, the closure of beaches until the wastes could be removed. Consumption of fish and shellfish contaminated from radioactive wastes may pose a serious problem worldwide because of nuclear waste dumping in the oceans."
The Washington State Department of Ecology has compiled a database that stores all measurable toxic sediment contamination in Puget Sound.
John Dohrmann, of the Puget Sound Water Quality Action Team tells us the "best available estimate is that out of 3,200 square miles of submerged lands, 6.4 square miles are so contaminated as to require active cleanup. One square mile can be addressed through capping in place. The other 5.4 square miles will require dredging of between 3.9 and 12.4 million cubic yards. The larger dredging volume would cover a football field with a pile half a mile high."
Bellingham Bay has 12 listed clean up sites (including two former superfund sites related to G.P. and the Oeser Corporation Superfund site) that will require dredging and capping to address toxic sediment contamination that threatens the health and safety of Bellingham residents.
Concern about public health impacts of toxic marine sediments led to the creation of the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority. In 1987, the Puget Sound Water Quality Management Plan was developed. The goal of the Puget Sound Water Quality Management Plan is:
"To reduce and ultimately eliminate adverse effects on biological resources and humans from sediment contamination throughout the Sound by reducing or eliminating discharges of toxic contaminants and by capping, treating or removing contaminated sediments."
Toxic chemicals in urban hotspots such as Bellingham have been shown to harm shellfish, finfish, humans and Puget Sound wildlife.
Shell fish and fin fish may accumulate contaminants from water, sediments, or food in their tissues. This can result in concentrations of the contaminant many times higher than those found in the environment. The degree of bioaccumulation depends on the level of exposure and the mechanisms by which the organism expels, stores, or metabolically breaks down the contaminant. Other organisms, including humans that depend on shell fish or fin fish for food may also accumulate contaminants.
Public outrage over toxic sediment contamination was the catalyst for the creation of the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority in 1985 and the adoption of the Puget Sound National Estuary Program in 1988.
Beginning in the 1980's, scientists began to report that toxic marine sediments were causing diseases, like cancer and heavy metal toxicity, in fish, shellfish and humans who consumed sea food. Out of concern for public health and safety, state and county Public Health Departments began issuing warnings about consuming fish and shellfish from numerous contaminated sites. (But not Bellingham).
Public concern about the health effects of open water disposal sites led to the closure of about half of the disposal sites in Puget Sound. Only six open water disposal sites, including Bellingham Bay, remain open in the Puget Sound region today.
Nationally, state governments have closed open water disposal sites after testing revealed that open water disposal sites sites create new public health hazards. For example, sites have been closed in New York Harbor, Chesapeake Bay and the State of Maryland has banned open water disposal beginning in 2010. http://cedb.asce.org/cgi/WWWdisplay.cgi?0304797
Governor Granholm of Michigan signed an Executive Directive in 2004 prohibiting toxic material disposal in Michigan's waters.
But here in Bellingham, the city of subdued excitement, we are planning to allow the Port (with ecology's blessing) to dredge toxic marine sediment from a number of clean up sites and dump it right back into Bellingham Bay or the Rosario Open Water Disposal sites, without the benefit of aquatic confinement, protective skirting or capping.
Here's an interesting side note - the City of Bellingham, along with the Lummi Nation, submitted letters opposing the creation of an Open Water Disposal Site in Bellingham Bay in the 1980's due to concerns about public health...
Not one elected official (from the city, county, port or state) has raised questions about potential health consequences associated with open water disposal, despite the fact that this is an issue that has created significant public controversy across America, Canada and other nations.
We can not allow Bellingham Bay to be the dumping ground for toxic materials. The toxins contained in dredged sediment could pose significant health dangers to fish, other indigneous aquatic life, wildlife and human beings. Especially vulnerable are pregnant women, infants and small children.
We have an obligation (out of concern for our health and well being) to insist that toxic sediment is placed in confined aquatic disposal sites. Yes, it costs a little more. But - we're worth the expense.
In fact, state and federal government should place a cap over the 78,887 cubic yards of toxic marine sediment that has already been dumped in the Bellingham Bay site.
Why would anyone dump toxic sediment in a shallow bay - knowing that the contamination can be redistributed and threaten public health?
Washingtonians have always depended on natural resources from Puget Sound to fuel the economy. It is our responsibility as economic and environmental stewards of our future to take action to protect Bellingham Bay from additional toxic contamination.
Bellingham Bay Cleanup sites
Bellingham Bay Sites -- Updated April 2004
Bellingham Bay Demonstration Pilot -- Updated November 24, 2003
Central Waterfront Updated May 12, 2006
Cornwall Avenue -- Added September 28, 2004
Georgia Pacific Log Pond -- Updated May 2, 2006-->
Habitat Action Team -- Updated June 27, 2003
R. G. Haley -- Added July 21, 2004
Harris Avenue Shipyard -- Added June 10, 2003
Holly Street Landfill -- Updated September 2004
I & J Waterway -- Updated September 7, 2005
Little Squalicum Park -- Updated April 25, 2006
Weldcraft Steel & Marine -- Updated November 2006
Whatcom Waterway/Georgia-Pacific Site -- Updated September 20 2007
Exxon Mobil Oil Corp-Bellingham - Added January 7, 2004
Shell Multi-Site VCP -- November 17, 2008
Health Risks Associated with Toxic Marine Sediment: http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=1412&page=155
Restoration Market place (Eagle Harbor, WA restoration results) http://www.restorationmarketplace.org/?id=114
John Dohrmann is a Technical and Policy Specialist with the Puget Sound Water Quality Action Team, responsible for a variety of issues, including sediment contamination. He has a bachelor's degree in fishery biology from New College and studied biological oceanography at the University of Washington.