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OPINION: "Bell Tones": Scrap metal controversy, our other market

Waste removal raises environmental concerns - meanwhile, Saturdays are for the fishes

Construction equipment rests near a large scrap metal pile on the waterfront in Bellingham, Wash. on Nov. 3, 2023. ABC Recycling began operations in Bellingham in 2022. // Photo by Finn Kurtz

I live a bit far off campus, as it happens. It’s often inconvenient to go home in between classes or work, giving me some time to kill on a weekday afternoon. I often find myself, as many of us do, strolling in and around the Viking Union and looking out at the wide view of the great geological formations surrounding Bellingham, bay to mountain range.

On the ledge between the Performing Arts Center and the Viking Union, I sometimes peer over to spy on the container village, perhaps a train passing through or a new ship in port. A new feature I’ve noticed of the gray-copper industrial plateau is a large pile of scrap metal, flocked by groups of excavators as remoras would a shark. 

Actually, the project began over a year ago, said Scott Jones, a business owner who has lived in Bellingham since 2010. Jones is president of the South Hill Neighborhood Association, a board member of the Bellingham Food Bank and a co-founder of Save the Waterfront, a community organization formed to protest the scrap metal project.

ABC Recycling, a Canada-based company that, as you may have guessed, recycles metal, signed a 15-year contract with the Port of Bellingham last summer and is tasked with processing scrap for shipment. The Port estimated that this would net $1.21 million in revenue by the project’s third year.

In our interview, Michael Shepard, District 1 commissioner of the Port of Bellingham, highlighted his responsibility to ensure the Port remains economically strong and diverse. Shepard holds a doctorate from the University of British Columbia, is a professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Western Washington University, and was elected to the Port in 2021.

“The Port is charged by the state to facilitate economic development and job creation,” Shepard said. “We want to have a working waterfront. People do want to retain a job base, a diversity of jobs in our community, particularly those that are water-dependent.”

Jones and Save the Waterfront, however, contend that the environmental effects are destructive. The Washington State Department of Ecology has issued permit violations to ABC  associated with the site. Jones also argues that the project is outside the boundaries of the “light industrial” activity the area is zoned for. 

Furthermore, the loading process is noisy, Jones said, with crews working late into the night — until 3 a.m., according to Save the Waterfront’s website. Jones said over a thousand signatures have already been obtained against the waterfront project.

Also of concern to Jones is a proposed metal shredder in the Alderwood and Birchwood neighborhoods of north Bellingham, also to be operated by ABC Recycling. According to Jones, the potential location of the metal shredder will only be a third of a mile from Alderwood Elementary School. Jones says zinc and lead particulates from the shredder have the capability to become airborne, which is of increased concern if the scrap is trucked from north Bellingham down to ABC’s waterfront site. Lead can lead to detrimental effects on human health, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and zinc can cause short-term illness according to the Centers for Disease Control. 

The shredder is outside of the Port’s jurisdiction, Shepard said. He confirmed the findings from the Department of Ecology, but emphasized that Washington state has some of the most stringent environmental regulations in the world, and reports like the Department of Ecology’s are part of a continuing negotiated process between the Port and ABC Recycling to ensure the company is meeting the mandatory environmental standards set by its contract.

“The Port maintains authority to have oversight and ensure that [ABC Recycling is] following all of their contractual expectations and obligations with us,” Shepard said. “I hope that ABC continues to operate and employ people at the waterfront, and have a good component of our local economy — but they have to follow expected regulation and standards, and the Port always has final authority to determine if they’re not following those, we can act accordingly.”

The issue has caused increasing discourse in town, becoming the subject of neighborhood meetings and public comments at the city council. Economic issues remain at the forefront, as they always have with regards to the Port, but especially as Bellingham approached the Nov. 7 elections.

“In the end, [ABC Recycling is] not going to come back to Washington to build our communities and our economy, they’re going to stay on the other side of the world,” Jones said, referring to ABC’s international shipment of scrap metal processed in Bellingham. “The environmental benefits and jobs are minimal at best.”

Shepard said he hopes that continued dialogue with constituents and the community as a whole can alleviate concerns while continuing to take advantage of economic opportunity. He also emphasized that the Port has room to grow, and that a diverse array of job types is not only critical for a healthy economy, but should be appreciated.

“We’ve had several stakeholder meetings with members of the neighborhood, the Port, the city and the International Longshoremen's Union to ensure that we have ongoing dialogue,” Shepard said. “We continue to work with our other partners to address concerns about having a robust, working waterfront. We do have a lot of people in this community who want to see that.”

Meanwhile, winter has crept in (can you believe it was in the 30s last week?) but that hasn’t stopped Bellingham’s Saturday markets from operating. Yes, you read that right – markets.

Like a little pocket parallel universe to the farmer’s market we all know and love, on alternating Saturdays the Bellingham Dockside Market hosts maritime vendors at Squalicum Harbor’s Fishermen’s Pavillion from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. 

Participating businesses are announced on Fridays, so stay tuned to their Facebook page for more information. Past booths have included Crab Bellingham, the Lummi Seafood Market and Sea to Shore Seafood Co. 

Your eye on the waterfront, yours truly, will chat with its vendors for the next edition of “Bell Tones.”

Finn Kurtz

Finn Kurtz (they/he) is the Opinion and Outreach Editor of The Front for summer quarter. He is a history and political science double major and a journalism/news editorial minor in their fourth year at Western. In his free time, he enjoys looking in bookstores, going on walks in the woods, and trivia. 

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