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Public meeting March 9 on Port Gamble Bay cleanup plans
Part one in a series on Port Gamble Bay's future
PORT GAMBLE — The refuse of a century and a half of millwork still carpets the floor of Port Gamble Bay. Wood debris is scattered across more than 300 acres, piled several feet in places.
“It looks like someone put down mulch on the bottom,” said Kevin MacLachlan, who is overseeing cleanup efforts in the bay for the state Department of Ecology.
On land, decomposing wood adds nutrients to soil and creates a base for plants to grow from. In saltwater, however, it can suffocate marine habitat and spread harmful chemicals. The wood debris, coupled with chemicals from the millsite and creosote pilings, landed Port Gamble Bay on a list of seven priority cleanup sites targeted by the Puget Sound Initiative, a governor-initiated effort to improve the health of Puget Sound by 2020. About 31,000 cubic yards of wood waste were dredged from the bay between 2002 and 2007.
This month, Ecology is taking public comments on studies that could lead to a fresh round of cleanup in the bay. A presentation on the potential cleanup is scheduled for March 9 in Port Gamble (see below).
MacLachlan said Ecology’s goal is to restore the bay’s natural functions as much as possible. Along with shellfish, Port Gamble is home to the second largest herring spawning ground in Puget Sound.
“The main thrust of all this is to be proactive and trying to restore some of the vital ecosystems of Puget Sound,” MacLachlan said.
Wood debris is one legacy of a booming timber industry that dominated the west shore of Port Gamble Bay beginning in the 1850s. The now-defunct Pope and Talbot company operated a sawmill at the mouth of the bay, below the present-day town of Port Gamble.
Tugboats and a railway brought logs to the bay. Logs were rafted and stored along the shoreline south of the mill. Millwork continued in Port Gamble until 1995.
Work has stopped, but contamination has lingered, MacLachlan said.
Ecology first investigated contamination in Port Gamble in 1997, finding levels of petroleum onshore higher than allowable under state law. Pope and Talbot and related company Pope Resources entered a voluntary cleanup agreement with Ecology. The companies dredged an area near the mill site in 2003, with approval from the state, and worked to clean up landfills and underground storage tanks on shore, where arsenic, formaldehyde and other chemicals were found in the soil.
Contamination was an unintended legacy of Port Gamble’s boom years, Olympic Property Group President Jon Rose said. The formaldehyde, for example, may have come from an embalmer’s office.
“A lot of the cleanup was related to Port Gamble being self sustaining,” Rose said.
A study of the bay by Ecology in 2006 led to more dredging. Between 2002 and 2007, 26,000 tons of soil were removed from the bay, along with the 31,000 cubic yards of wood debris. Pope and Talbot collapsed in 2008 but Pope Resources continued to work with Ecology to study the contamination.
Along with the millsite, surveys have found heavy debris around a site in the southwest corner of the bay, which the Department of Natural Resources leased to Pope and Talbot. At the urging of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, Ecology extended its survey into the middle of the bay, where it found more wood debris mixed into the sediment.
MacLachlan said he can’t estimate how much wood debris remains in the bay, but its effects are obvious. Wood waste covers portions of the seafloor where clams and other shellfish would normally flourish.
Tissue samples of shellfish within portions of the identified cleanup area found low toxin levels. Chemicals found arsenic, cadmium, cancer causing hydrocarbons and dioxins. MacLachlan said cadmium and hydrocarbons were found in levels that could be hazardous to humans if the shellfish were eaten in large quantity. Those samples were taken in areas with high wood debris and in deep water where harvests don’t generally take place.
The tribe’s commercial shellfish harvests are concentrated near the mouth of the bay, outside of the wood debris field, MacLachlan said. Some chemicals are leaching from treated pilings that still dot the west shoreline of the bay. Ecology would eventually like to remove those as well.
MacLachlan said Ecology has outlined several scenarios for dealing with Port Gamble Bay contamination. Solutions may include dredging debris from the bottom and using caps of clean sediment to isolate wood waste and toxins. Alternatives include monitoring natural decay of the wood. Money for the cleanup will come from Pope Resources and the state Department of Natural Resources.
Ecology will choose its cleanup action based in part on comments it receives this month.
“This is a chance to have an active voice,” MacLachlan said.
Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe officials are still formulating the tribe’s official comment on the cleanup studies.
Environmental coordinator Roma Call said the tribe strongly advocates wood debris cleanup in Port Gamble Bay. Along with its cultural significance as an ancestral home, the tribe relies on the bay for commercial and sustenance shellfish harvests.
Call said the tribe wants to make sure the studies and eventual cleanup cover all affected areas.
“The tribe wants to make sure the cleanup is done in the best way possible,” Call said.
BAY CLEANUP: The Department of Ecology is taking public comments on a Port Gamble Bay cleanup study until March 29. Read the study at www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/tcp/sites/psi/portGamble/psi_portGamble.html, or at the Poulsbo Library, 700 NE Lincoln St.
A presentation and public meeting are scheduled March 9, 4:30 p.m., in the Hood Canal Vista Pavilion in Port Gamble.