The last shipping terminal activity ceased at the Port of Bellingham about 20 years ago, after the Georgia-Pacific pulp mill shut down in 2001. Now, revitalization efforts have been at work in recent years to transform the Port’s waterfront into a place for residential as well as commercial and industrial spaces — but not without some growing pains.
Residents of Bellingham’s South Hill neighborhood overlooking the bay’s waterfront complained of a cacophony of sound last October, as thousands of tons of scrap metal were being loaded onto the 580-foot Blue Everton, a shipping barge about the length of 20 male orca whales.
“I live over half a mile away from the site and can hear trucks backing up and metal intermittently crashing through my closed doors/windows until at least two or three in the morning,” wrote one Reddit user in October.
Noise complaints may become more commonplace as the Port of Bellingham works to revitalize the once-active waterfront.
The closure of the pulp mill left the area with a 74-acre parcel of contaminated land. The Port acquired the land in exchange for cleaning it up and, after several years of work with the Washington State Department of Ecology, the property is designated for condominiums, a boutique hotel and convention center, affordable housing and a food hub, among other future projects.
The sounds of recycling
Over the past year alone, the Port has spent over $7.5 million of grant money on new equipment to accelerate revitalization of the shipping terminal, including forklifts, trucks, trailers and even a crane.
“Modernizing and revitalizing the Bellingham Shipping Terminal is a huge win for our working waterfront and the citizens of Whatcom County,” wrote Dave Warter, the Marine Terminals and Emergency Services Manager for the Port of Bellingham, in an email.
Over 6,000 jobs are associated with the working waterfront, according to Warter. These jobs represent 7% of Whatcom County’s total workforce.
Businesses like ABC Recycling, the largest scrap metal recycling company operating out of Western Canada, can take advantage of the new equipment. The Port contracted with ABC Recycling in August, and in October union workers at the port loaded piles of scrap metal (anything from rebar to car frames) onto the Blue Everton. Once loaded, the metal traveled to Asia for recycling, according to port commissioner Michael Shepard. The first shipment in October weighed over 25,000 tons.
Workers loaded scrap metal during day shifts and from 6 to 9:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. The night shifts shorten the time the barge has to remain at the port from over a week to just one or two days. However, it also means more commotion at night, according to Shepard.
“The sound is similar to a larger scale version of when a garbage company picks up aluminum cans from your curbside in the morning,” wrote Warter in an email.
The Port of Bellingham received several emails and phone calls from community members complaining about the noise from the scrap metal operation.
At the Nov. 1 meeting of the Port commission, port workers and other supporters of an active shipping terminal in Bellingham shared their perspectives during the public comment period.
Mark Williams, secretary-treasurer for the International and Longshore Warehouse Union in Bellingham. attributed his ability to continue to live in Bellingham with his family thanks to the quality of jobs the Port provides.
Andy Anthony, the vice president of U.S Operations for ABC recycling, suggested noise reduction strategies such as reefers, dampeners and containers to reduce the effects of the noise.
Following up, Shepard met with the South Hill Neighborhood association in early December to discuss the noise issue.
“The noise is concerning, depending on how long and how often it may happen,” wrote Scott Jones, a member of the neighborhood association who attended the meeting, in an email.
Noise by the numbers
The Port commissioned an environmental noise study that took place on Oct. 16 and 17 during the loading operation to ensure that night activity of loading scrap metal did not exceed city of Bellingham legal noise-level limits.
SSA Acoustics monitored noise levels at one property within the South Hill / Sehome neighborhood along North Forest Street, and one near the shipping terminal at Cornwall Beach.
Their assessment found that noise decibels in the South Hill community were mostly well below City of Bellingham noise limits. In fact, the only times in which the noise monitors registered sounds above decibel limits were when a train horn was sounded.
“We are really working to balance being a good neighbor and managing things like noise while also doing the important work we’ve been charged with by the state to create economic development,” Shepard said.
The noise study concluded that, “Although the loading operations were within code limits, additional mitigation measures such as broadband backup beepers and exhaust mufflers in addition to rubber lined loading platform and localized noise barriers or enclosures may be considered to reduce the impact to the residential properties.”
ABC Recycling is scheduled to load up another shipment of scrap metal in late January or early February, Shepard said. The Port will continue their noise-sampling efforts, as well as work with ABC Recycling to put in a wall of shipping containers around the operation to dampen the noise.
The scrap metal operation at the Port is only one of many contracts to come in the Port’s effort to grow its waterfront economy and activity. The port’s mix of industrial, commercial and residential activities will continue to grow and, like scrap metal loading, now tests and will continue to test the bounds of what it really means to be a good neighbor.
— Reported by Riley Weeks