As the commercialization of the Bellingham waterfront continues to grow, developers must take extra precautions due to the area’s unique hazards.

Story by Maddie Smith | Photos by Jason James

Above: The Acid Ball located at Waypoint Park in Bellingham, Washington, was used to in the process of creating paper for the Georgia-Pacific paper mill. In addition to crafting paper, Georgia-Pacific built the waterfront itself by importing and condensing mud. If the ground were to vibrate, water would shake loose from the soil, allowing buildings to sink into it like quicksand.

As an undergraduate at Western Washington University in the late 1990s, Brian Gouran often sat at the highest story of the Viking Union, gazing down at the happenings of the Georgia-Pacific pulp and tissue plant. He would go there during his lunch break, intrigued by the industry on Bellingham’s waterfront, before heading off to his next class.

“It was just a beehive of activity,” he said.

Now, Gouran is the director of environmental programs for the Port of Bellingham. He watched the evolution of the waterfront from its industrial past to the demolition of the Georgia-Pacific facility, and is now promoting environmental cleanup and redevelopment of the area for the Port.

Above: Brian Gouran, director of environmental programs at the Port of Bellingham, has big plans for the development of the waterfront. He is working on issues underneath the surface, including the area’s high risk of liquefaction.

The waterfront is attractive for new development because of its proximity to Bellingham Bay and downtown, but risks lie just below the surface. The land built there by Georgia-Pacific is vulnerable to becoming a muddy slurry in the event of an earthquake. Despite hazards, the Port is now developing the land, a process which will require geologic mitigation. The plan for development includes residential units, commercial services and public parks.

The waterfront district is entirely composed of filled-in tidelands. It wasn’t land until the 1950s, according to Pete Stelling, associate professor of geology at Western Washington University. Georgia-Pacific wanted to build their pulp and tissue mill close to the water, where they stored their lumber. Using a boat with a hose attached, the company filled in the tidelands with mud from beyond the shoreline, tamped it flat, covered it with cement and constructed buildings for their processing plant. The entire port area is “built up on bay mud which has not been well consolidated,” said Stelling.

Because mud was used to fill in the area, there is an abundance of water beneath the cement surface. If the ground vibrates, the water will separate from the grains and move to the surface as the mud and clay particles sink.

“When there’s too much water at the surface, it just turns to soup,” Stelling said.

When Georgia-Pacific was filling in the waterfront area, they did not build a retaining wall around the perimeter. If the ground liquifies, the material under the cement could spill out into the bay, said Stelling.

In 1989, San Francisco’s waterfront liquified following the Loma Prieta earthquake. Much like Bellingham’s waterfront, San Francisco’s tidelands were artificially filled with sand or mud. The cost of damage from the Loma Prieta earthquake totaled almost $6 billion. Liquefaction damage was responsible for over $99 million, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report.

On a map of liquefaction risk in Washington state, created by the state’s Department of Natural Resources, the waterfront stands out in stark red, separating it from the low-risk yellows and greens of surrounding areas. Gouran said the Port is aware of liquefaction hazards, and every development project on the waterfront will go through a site-specific geotechnical analysis. GeoEngineers Incorporated have already conducted a study on the land now home to the All American Marine facility on the waterfront off Roeder Avenue.

Geologists determined soil densification was needed, a process which squeezes the soil together until it condenses, making the ground solid enough to build on. Like a machine crushing an aluminum can, air is removed until the material is tightly condensed. Workers drilled holes in the site, pounding rocks into the soil with a hollow tube attached to a drill. They repeated this process, overlapping back and forth throughout the entire site. Geotechnical studies like the one conducted for the All American Marine facility will be done for each waterfront location before developers are allowed to build, said Gouran.

The site just south of the downtown waterfront is still in the process of cleanup, an area historically occupied by Georgia-Pacific’s chlorine plant. One of the chemicals used at the former plant was mercury, which is highly volatile, making the cleanup process extensive. The Port capped most of the site with concrete but that does not mean it’s entirely safe. Capping the sediment minimizes hazards associated with mercury contamination. However, in the event of an earthquake the mercury could be disturbed from the sediment, according to Stelling.

As for the downtown waterfront area, cleanup is complete and development is underway. The recently constructed Waypoint Park is now home to Bellingham’s iconic Acid Ball. The giant metal ball was originally used by Georgia-Pacific to process wood, but now serves as an artistic reminder of the city’s industrial legacy.

The waterfront’s development goal is to provide more housing to Bellingham’s increasing population without contributing to urban sprawl. Developers are planning three residential buildings adjacent to Waypoint Park. The buildings will contain 94 residential units, which would aid the pressing need for new residential housing units city-wide. Other areas around Bellingham could be developed, but the waterfront district is highly desirable.

“The waterfront has always been the obvious [choice] because it’s right downtown,” said Nicholas Zaferatos, a professor of urban planning at Western and former member of Bellingham’s Planning Commission.

The project is also an opportunity for community partnerships. In collaboration with the nearby university, the Port developed a plan for the waterfront called Western Crossing.

Bellingham’s waterfront plays a key role in local commerce, accomodating barges which ship heavy logs, and containers full of merchandise. If the waterfront were to collapse, local aquatic industry and transportation would be negatively impacted.

Western Crossing’s goal is “to provide opportunities for learning that go beyond the classroom in a really attractive place in our city,” said Donna Gibbs, vice president of university relations and marketing, and liaison for Western in the partnership. Although plans for Western Crossing are still loose, the university hopes to integrate student research into the project.

Over the past few decades, Gouran has witnessed the waterfront change significantly since his time at Western. Further changes, be they liquid or solid, are only just beginning.



The Planet is Western Washington University’s award-winning quarterly environmental publication and the only undergraduate environmental magazine in the U.S.

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The Planet Magazine

The Planet is Western Washington University’s award-winning quarterly environmental publication and the only undergraduate environmental magazine in the U.S.