For about a century, the town of Anacortes boomed and buzzed with industries like canneries and paper mills on the shoreline of Fidalgo Bay. These operations provided employment and a living, and left behind a legacy of toxic chemicals.
Today, green grass stretches several blocks wide between the shoreline and Q Avenue, where an expansive development of housing, stores and restaurants, and public amenities is planned.
Shoreline properties cleaned of pollutants are valuable real estate. After the Georgia-Pacific pulp mill on Bellingham’s waterfront shut down 20 years ago, the Port of Bellingham began a cleanup and revitalization effort to transform the area into condominiums, a hotel and convention center, restaurants, affordable housing and public parks and trails.
On the Port of Anacortes property on Fidalgo Bay, companies such as Anacortes Port Log Yard, Shell Oil Tank Farm, Dakota Creek Industries and Scott Paper Mill contaminated the bay. The Port, the state Department of Ecology and potentially liable parties — (PLPs) parties responsible for environmental remediation — have been collaborating in the Anacortes Bayside Cleanup since 2007.
The former Scott Paper Mill contaminated the upland soil, groundwater and marine sediments with metals, petroleum hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins/furans. State investigation also found phthalates from stormwater and street runoff, petroleum from marina activity, metals from shipyard operations and mercury from natural resources in the bay.
The first milling operation on the site began in 1925 with the Fidalgo Pulp Manufacturing Company, which was purchased in 1940 by the Scott Paper Company. Scott Paper ceased milling operations in 1978 and was purchased and merged into Kimberly-Clark in 1995.
In 1978, the Port of Anacortes purchased the northern portion of the property, and the rest of the property was purchased by the Snelson-Anvil Corporation, which subsequently sold the property to Kiewit and Sons. In 1990, MJB Properties LLC of Seattle bought the property from Kiewit and Sons, with plans to develop it.
After the Port bought the northern portion of the property, it sold part of the property to Sun Healthcare Systems and worked together to removed petroleum-contaminated soil and wood debris from the site. The northern part of the site has been further subdivided and sold to Northwest Educational Service District 189, Anacortes Concepts, LLC and Seafarers’ LLC.
Ecology worked with the PLPs, the Port and Kimberly-Clark — the successor to Scott Paper Mill— to clean up the remaining contamination.
Shoreline habitat restoration and public access enhancements were integrated into the site cleanup, and the northern portion of the site was converted into Seafarer’s Memorial Park. Cleanup was completed in 2012.
In addition, work crews have removed creosote-soaked pilings, structures, mill debris and contaminated soil from cleanup sites at the Custom Plywood Mill and Shell Oil Tank Farm.
“This effort is transforming the Anacortes area waterfront as cleanups are completed and reopened with new public access and opportunities for economic redevelopment,” Ecology wrote.
More than 10 years after cleanup was completed, MJB plans to develop the decontaminated property along Q Avenue. In addition to stimulating the local economy, the project is tasked with protecting the marine ecosystem from recontamination.
MJB began improving the 28-acre site in 2021. Its earlier development plans were rejected by the city until MJB provided a comprehensive plan that included public access trails, a hotel, an event center and retail spaces. The development’s first buildings may go up in late 2025 or early 2026, MJB representative Jimmy Blais said.
Current work at the site includes preventing potential recontamination of the former industrial shoreline and maintaining the stabilization of soft (organic erosion-control) and habitat-friendly shorelines, said Cheryl Ann Bishop, Ecology’s communications manager.
“A clean bay without contamination is critical to enhance the habitat of marine life,” Bishop said. “When these habitats are cleaned up, they can improve human and environmental health, increase recreation opportunities and improve the economy.”
Contaminated sediment harms eelgrass beds, which are nurseries for herring, salmon and marine life at the base of the food chain, said Marlene Finley, president of the environmental advocacy group Evergreen Islands. “It’s important to protect the eelgrass beds and those [along the MJB site] are some of the largest, most extensive eelgrass beds.”
Stormwater carries chemicals and microplastics from the pavement to marine habitat, she noted. She wants to see MJB implementing the best practices for managing stormwater.
Blais concurred that stormwater runoff poses the largest threat of recontamination on site.
“MJB has installed PerkFilters in all of the new roadways for its development,” said Matt Miller, mayor of Anacortes. “These will further the City’s efforts to remove pollutants from its stormwater system.”
PerkFilters are used at other locations in Anacortes too, said Stormwater Program Manager Diane Hennebert.
Water quality is just one threat to mitigate when it comes to protecting the coastal ecosystem.
Finley wants to see development not only prevent the contamination of sediment in the nearshore marine environment but also preserve shoreline function with soft armor structures.
Much of the shoreline actions are still in the permitting phase with City and federal jurisdictions, Blais said.
Miller also said the City hasn’t received a complete application for a Shoreline Substantial Development Permit, a SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) review, JARPA (Joint Aquatic Resource Permit Application) or a summarized project narrative.
At the north end of the former Scott Paper Mill, there was little to no eelgrass because the sediment was degraded, Bishop said. During site cleanup, the area was replaced with clean sand and gravel to provide high quality substrate for eelgrass growth.
The shoreline along the MJB property was armored with hard structures to prevent erosion and flooding, but MJB is looking at soft-shore alternatives.
“Shore protection design for this property development site will include a blend of soft-shore
and hard-shore protection approaches over the whole length of the shore,” Miller said. Hard armoring includes erosion control and tide resistant structures like bulkheads, riprap and seawalls while soft armor includes organic features like logs and vegetation.
The development’s design will include beach nourishment, low crested rockery structures to contain beach nourishment sediments and shoreline armor repairs to enhance protection against future coastal erosion and flooding threats, Miller said.
MJB will be installing softer beach materials to aid fish habitat, Blais said, but about a third of the shoreline armor is hard armor and can’t be softened due to the steepness of the slope.
“We need to have a natural shoreline and soft armoring and intact buffers along the shoreline for ecosystem function and for resilience against storms and king tides,” Finley said. “When there’s flooding, it impacts water quality and it’s a cost to local government and individuals, so we need to plan for it now.”
Sea levels are rising and the height of year’s high tides, exemplified by the extreme king tides that berated the shorelines in the last week of December, will be the regular sea level in less than a century.
MJB plans for its development to be two feet above the overall highest tide and storm surge of today based on analysis from Coastal Geological Services, Blais said.
“We think it’s smart business and the right way to develop,” he said. “In 50 years, you don’t want all of your buildings at the shoreline to be underwater.”
Miller said the development is required to feature a pedestrian esplanade and must satisfy all applicable Shoreline Master Program provisions.
“Ecology might be involved in future MJB’s plan on fixing shoreline and in-water elements of the project along with a shoreline esplanade and landscaping as needed,” Bishop said.
While much of this work will be done in the future, as plans are in permitting and approval stages Evergreen Islands keeps a close eye on the permit process and permit enforcement. The group is looking at applications and providing public comments.
Blaise hopes that developing the MJB property will spur economic development in Anacortes. Bringing condos, senior living and apartments rentals will expand the housing supply, a hotel and event center will bring in travelers, and an esplanade will provide beach and pedestrian access to the bay’s shoreline.
Meeting the needs of the nearshore marine ecosystem after former industrial shorelines are decontaminated to make way for redevelopment is a priority for environmental advocates like Evergreen Islands.
For Finley, it is important “that [the City of Anacortes] have sufficient staff to give this project and permit applications the time needed to research and work with the developers to make sure that the safeguards are in place to protect the environment as Anacortes grows.”
— Reported by Kai Uyehara