The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe has been fighting for nearly 20 years to have Port Gamble Bay cleaned of the pollution and wood waste left behind by an old mill across the bay from the tribe’s reservation.
Creosote logs from the mill used to wash ashore on the tribe’s reservation after big storms, affecting health of the beach where tribal members have been harvesting shellfish for generations, said Jeromy Sullivan, tribal chairman.
Those logs won’t be around much longer as the state Department of Ecology (DOE) and the mill’s property owner, Olympic Property Group (OPG), are wrapping up a two-year cleanup in January.
Approximately 6,000 creosote pilings and docks, 70,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment and wood waste, and a derelict vessel are being removed as one of the biggest creosote pile removal projects in Puget Sound.
Fighting for Clean Water
The mill operated for nearly 150 years until it closed down in 1995, but marine industrial operations continued until 2014. Mill site soil remediation work was completed followed by a dredging in 2007. The main cleanup did not start until 2015 when DOE and OPG implemented a cleanup plan. But not without the tribe making sure it was done right.
The tribe went to bat for the cleanup, said Paul McCollum, the tribe’s natural resources director. Most tribes in Washington state have to follow state and federal rules to make sure they’re doing their own restoration projects properly, he said.
“We were constantly reminding Ecology about the importance in the law and regulations of protecting both human health and the environment,” he added. “We elevated the importance of the cleanup to remind them we had folks, who, for multiple generations, have and still rely on these species that live in the bay.”
Keeping An Eye on Species Health
On McCollum’s desk sits a nearly 2-foot-tall stack of documents, reports, maps, contracts, scientific data and agreements.
“This pile barely represents 10 years worth of work that got us where we are today,” he said.
The tribe has spent about $2 million on the effort, including staff time and research to show that the waters and sediments were severely polluted. In addition to fighting for the mill cleanup, the tribe cleaned its own beach at Point Julia in 2014, including removing derelict vessels, debris and an old pier.
Tribal scientists have been monitoring the health of the bay before and during the cleanup, by monitoring water quality and eelgrass, and sampling mussel tissue for paralytic and diarrhetic shellfish poisoning.
“We did our own data collecting and tested the samples to show that you can’t ignore the data,” McCollum said.
“The monitoring is so important to see how shellfish are doing with this transition,” said Christine Raczka, the tribe’s environmental scientist. “Sampling results tell us immediately how they are being affected. And when the shellfish are poisoned, the tribal members can’t harvest.”
The tribe also was concerned about the bay’s herring population since the bay has been considered one of the last pristine habitats in Puget Sound for the nearshore fish.
“We fought to make sure people knew about it because we were really worried about the herring health,” McCollum said. “We did a herring mortality study with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, who did a great job showing how the pH levels and sediments were connected to embryos that had heart issues. That helped us with getting attention to remove the thousands of creosote pilings.”
Once It’s Clean, Keep It Clean
As the project wraps up in January, the tribe will continue to monitor water quality and shellfish and eelgrass health. The property owner, OPG, will monitor sediment in the bay.
“We need to keep monitoring up, keep the science up to date and make sure we’re going in the right direction and not taking a step back,” Sullivan said.
While the tribe was not involved directly with the cleanup, it was still vital that the tribe paid attention, for both the tribe and the surrounding community.
“All our families are eating clams or crab or oysters off these beaches and finfish of many kinds, including bottomfish,” Sullivan said. “It’s a good step forward toward having clean seafood on our kitchen tables. And it’s something we’re doing for the future – and not just for the bay, but for Hood Canal and Puget Sound.”
As for the future, the tribe would like OPG to make the mill site more of a green space – closer to its natural state with nearshore habitat for fish, shellfish, shorebirds and other species. The company has talked recently about developing the town with 200 new homes, a waterfront hotel, winery, farm and more retail.
“The work is not only about the cleanup but the protection of what we just cleaned up,” Sullivan said. “The concern is about development and growth. We understand Kitsap is beautiful and people move here and don’t want to leave. But they need to be good stewards of the environment. It’s their responsibility as it is ours. We need to communicate with them about the tribe as their neighbors, our concerns, why it’s so important to us, and why it needs to be pristine and stay pristine.”