Ecology outlines vision for restoring Port Gamble Bay

An aerial view of the former Port Gamble millsite. The Pope and Talbot mill operated for nearly 150 years. - Department of Ecology photo
An aerial view of the former Port Gamble millsite. The Pope and Talbot mill operated for nearly 150 years.
— image credit: Department of Ecology photo

PORT GAMBLE — In 20 years, Port Gamble Bay could be whole again.

Wood chips strewn on its bottom will be replaced by clean sand. The toxic legacy of its industry past will be stripped away and faded. Mollusks and forage fish will flourish in clean water throughout the bay.

This is the vision for reclaiming the bay the state Department of Ecology illustrated Wednesday in Port Gamble.

"This site is going to look remarkably different," the Puget Sound Initiative's Tim Nord said. "The environmental condition of this site will be remarkably improved."

Ecology's proposed cleanup project would dredge 28,000 cubic yards of wood waste and sediment from around the former Port Gamble millsite, covering the dredged area with a cap of clean sediment. More than 600 creosote-treated pilings would also be removed.

In the middle and southwestern  portions  of  the  bay, where wood debris is less concentrated. Ecology would let nature take its course and would monitor toxin levels. Department officials believe the chemicals would disappear to harmless levels within two decades.

Ecology is taking comments on its cleanup study through March 29. It will finalize plans and pursue permits in 2011, and could execute the cleanup between 2012 and 2014.

Ecology's proposals were met by a receptive but questioning audience Wednesday. Some questioned how Ecology would monitor improvements in the bay and whether the department is aggressive enough on piling removal.

"I think they've planned it pretty well," said Dave Peeler, director of programs for People of Puget Sound, a Seattle-based non-profit that monitors cleanup work.

But Peeler said questions remain. For one, Ecology isn't clear about what will happen if the toxins don't dissipate as quickly as the department projects, he said.

"That would be a concern," Peeler said. "What happens if the assumptions are wrong? Who's going to be around in 10 years to make sure this happens?"

Two sites, two strategies

There are two areas within Port Gamble Bay that Ecology plans to restore.

The most visible is the Pope and Talbot sawmill site on the waterfront of the town of Port Gamble. The other lies along middle and southwest areas of the bay where the Department of Natural Resources leased tidelands to Pope and Talbot for staging logs.

Toxins were found in both areas, including cancer-causing hydrocarbons and poisonous cadmium. The toxins probably came from milling activities and creosote-treated pilings. Wood debris can also suffocate sea life and release damaging natural pesticides.

The mill near the mouth of the bay processed Puget Sound timber for nearly 150 years before shutting down in the 1990s.

Wood chips were loaded onto barges at the north and south ends of the mill site and some tumbled into the water. The chips settled onto the floor of the bay, layered more than 10 feet deep in places. About 30,000 cubic yards of sediment and wood debris were dredged from the southern side in the early 2000s but the northern side remains untouched.

Ecology proposes to dredge nearly 30,000 cubic yards more of material from around the site. Clean sand would be spread over the dredged areas to lock in any passed over debris and speed the settling of fresh sediment.

Ecology scientists have monitored toxin levels around the mill site over the last decade and say conditions have improved dramatically.

Cadmium, for example, is found at "background" levels in Puget Sound at a concentration of about 1 part per million. Ecology has sampled cadmium in Port Gamble Bay at up to 14 parts per million. However, levels have receded to near background levels.

"The system has recovered an awful lot," said Clay Patmont, who oversees the mill site for Ecology. "With time, the toxicity is going away."

That has given state scientists hope that repairing the southwestern lease site won't require aggressive action.

The site was used for staging rafts of logs brought in by rail and tugboats. Wood debris is spread in the sediment in a plume that extends into the middle of the bay. Ecology samples shellfish in these areas at the urging of the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe. Crabs, clams, geoduck and oysters were collected at 50 sites. At 24 of those sites, potentially harmful toxins were found in the tissue of those shellfish. Shellfish aren't harvested commercially or recreationally in these areas.

Rather than attempt to excavate or cap the contamination dispersed through this area, Ecology officials believe it would be best to let the toxins dissipate and monitor natural recovery and believe the area could return to a natural state within 20 years. Recovery in the area would be monitored for decades.

"The evidence that we have of natural recovery occurring at the mill site led us to what we're looking at here," said Russ McMillan, who oversees the lease site for Ecology.

Steps toward cleanup

Ecology plans to move quickly toward cleanup. Comments will be collected through March 29, then Ecology will make a decision on what cleanup methods to pursue. That will inform a legal consent decree for Olympic Property Group (a subsidiary of Pope Resources, which split from Pope and Talbot) and the Department of Natural Resources, obligating the two groups to complete the cleanup.

The decree will lead to engineering studies and permit applications in late 2011. The public will have several more opportunities to comment as planning progresses.

Several people at the Wednesday meeting asked why Ecology wasn't planning to remove all of the pilings in the bay, which are considered the main source of cancer-causing hydrocarbons. Tim Nord said Ecology doesn't regulate pilings but will do what it can to remove them.

Others wondered how Ecology will prevent future pollution from eroding the restoration work. Nord said that will take a broad effort by state and local agencies. Removing point sources of pollution like stormwater and creosote are a relatively straightforward way of protecting the bay, Nord said. Educating the public to prevent dispersed but insidious pollution from creeping into the bay is harder.

"In the end, it becomes a land-use issue," Nord said. "We as a society (should be) asking, are we going to control our behavior to protect this ecosystem?"

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