Historic Blaine business folds, cites clean-up costs

Published on Thu, Dec 9, 2010 by By Tara Nelson

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An iconic Blaine business will close this month, citing environmental clean-up costs its owner can’t afford to pay.

Local business owner Bob Gundmundson of Westman Marine said he will be shutting down his ship building and repair business at the end of Marine Drive by December 31 after state environmental regulations would require him to spend an estimated $500,000 to clean up a marine sediment and in-water chemical contamination surrounding the site.

The chemical – tributyltin, also known as TBT – was originally used for commercial wood preservation and as an antifungal agent in industrial ship coatings. Tributylin compounds are part of a class of highly persistent pollutants that bioaccummulate as they travel up the marine food chain.

They have been shown to cause abnormal reproductive development in marine organisms and have been linked to obesity in humans as they trigger genes that cause the growth of fat cells.

Although the use of TBT was largely banned in 1986, it is still permitted on vessels more than 25 feet in length or for touch-ups if applied by a licensed applicator.

Gundmundson said he initially agreed to work with the Port of Bellingham – which owns the property – spending “hundreds of thousands of dollars” and funding an environmental clean-up cost study. When the port unveiled the final cost estimate, however, Gundmundson said it was out of his price range.

 “If we did something then we’d clean it up,” Gundmundson said. “But we weren’t part of that. It was declared hazardous nearly 20 years before I took ownership.”

Port of Bellingham environmental director Mike Stoner, however, said the entire projected cost of the clean-up is closer to $1.5 million and that Gundmundson and his co-owners are only responsible for one-third of the cost.

“We generously assessed the portion of the cost the current  owners are responsible for,” Stoner said. “We feel like we’ve been very fair in our negotiations with them and we expected them to continue operating the site. We were disappointed they made a decision not to.”

The business was operated by the late Blaine resident Carl Westman and his family until 1989, when they sold it to Jack Dawson and Jim Prill who renamed it Westman Marine. In 2000, Gudmundson joined the partnership.

According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, the Westman Marine property was added to the state’s list of contaminated sites in 2004.

Cleanup is required at sites where the amount of toxic substances is above limits set in the state’s Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA), a 1989 citizen initiative that established a broad-based program for cleaning and preventing toxic contamination.

Most of the sites were likely contaminated many years ago, but the pollution was uncovered only recently as owners prepared to redevelop the property. State law requires hazardous substances to be removed before the property can be sold or redeveloped, according to the DOE web site.

The state pays for cleanup only when a liable person cannot be found or when identified liable parties lack the financial resources.

Stoner said when the port is left with a piece of contaminated land, they typically work with the DOE and other state agencies to find grants so that the brunt of the burden is not pushed onto the local tax base.

“As an agency whose job is to create jobs and foster economic development, we’ve been working with them to try and find a way to help them stay in business ... But the DOE also has reglations that require the cleanup of contamination that occured,” Stoner said. “We are operating under the current regulatory framework and trying to deal with this in the best way possible but we also want to try to avoid a situation where we’re subsidizing the clean-up through private, local taxes.”

Port of Bellingham executive director Charlie Sheldon said Gundmundson’s decision to close is not uncommon in Washington state as environmental regulations continue to tighten.

“There are many situations all around Washington similar to this,” he said. “What used to be standard practices are now illegal so it’s a big change and requires some adjustments.

“Boat yards, however, are invaluable to marine areas and we’re going to try to find someone else who will have that service available.”

According to the settlement agreement with the Port of Bellingham, Westman Marine will pay $240,000 cash and give the port approximately $250,000 in haul-out equipment and structures.

In the meantime, Gundmundson said he’s trying to encourage the port to work with one of his employees to take over operations so they can continue working while they seek out a new tennant.