Mukilteo scientists plan for new building

Federal funding will allow design, environmental work to go forward
By Nicholas Johnson | Sep 13, 2017
Photo by: Nicholas Johnson Paul McElhany, station chief at the Mukilteo Research Station, explains an experiment on the effect of ocean acidification on Dungeness crab larvae.

Scientists at the Mukilteo Research Station are more than ready for a new, state-of-the-art research facility. Since the 1970s, they’ve been making due with a WWII-era Air Force barracks on the city’s waterfront.

Good news came from Congress last month when Rep. Rick Larsen reported that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had received some $4.6 million to cover the design and environmental work needed to prepare for the construction of a new building.

“We’re very excited about the possibility of a new facility on this site,” station chief Paul McElhany said, noting that a new building can’t come fast enough.

“It was built in a hurry,” he said of the building, which is currently being held up by some 150 jacks. “They were just trying to make sure they could get through winning the war; they weren’t planning on something that would have to live for 70 years as a fisheries science center, so it’s held up amazingly well.”

The jacks were put in place three years ago. At the time, engineers certified the building through 2020.

“We only have a few years really to replace this building,” he said. “We certainly don’t have a concrete Plan B.”

Right now, the plan is to construct a $33 million, 26,000-square-foot building on a vacant lot just east of the current facility. The goal is to get there by 2020, but that will depend on much more funding from Congress.

McElhany has already begun working on design features the new building will need, and that the current building sorely lacks, such as level floors, temperature control and a reliable seawater pumping system.

“We tend to design short-term experiments because counting on something not failing for a two-year project is a lot to ask from this building,” he said. “But there are a lot of questions that you can’t answer unless you do a long-term project.”

For example, he would like to do studies on Dungeness crab that last their entire life cycle, which is three years. That requires a reliable seawater pumping system.

“I don’t know that we would be able to pull off a long-term study until we get a new facility,” he said. “They are really risky here.”

The current seawater pumping system relies on a pump at the end of a pier drawing water through intake lines that run 150 feet beyond the end of that pier. The current system pumps some 200 gallons per minute into the facility. A new pump system would be three times as powerful and hopefully draw from a well in the ground, he said.

On top of that, the building’s heat is generated by a 1948 boiler. And the floors are not only tilting to the east, they’re made of old wood, which doesn’t exactly react well to water spills.

“There are coatings people have put over it, but in an aqua-lab the floors are going to be wet with seawater all the time,” he said. “We need to not have to worry about that.”

NOAA research into the environmental impacts on fish species caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 might have been conducted in Mukilteo, but the building wasn’t in good enough condition, raising concerns about potential litigation.

“Those people will sue you if you say that you can’t use their chemical or that this oil spill was their fault,” he said. “So we need a building with security and chain of custody that could pass an inspection so we can make the claim that reliable science is being done there.”

McElhany is currently conducting experiments on the effect of carbon dioxide on Dungeness crab larvae. His colleagues are researching a host of other issues, including ocean acidification’s effect on a salmon’s sense of smell. Others are working to rear pinto abalone, which were over harvested in the 1970s and never really recovered.

Larsen said he would continue to push for federal investments in the research center.

“The scientists who work at the station perform very valuable work studying salmon, other marine species in the Puget Sound, as well as assessing the impacts of ocean acidification and diseases that help inform fisheries management decisions,” he said.

Mayor Jennifer Gregerson said she’s excited about the potential to incorporate the new building into the city’s waterfront redevelopment plans since it sits along the planned route for a waterfront promenade.

“I’m excited about the opportunity to open that up and make sure that our community and our region knows what’s happening here,” she said.

McElhany agreed, saying there will be lots of opportunity for public outreach.

“It’s going to be redeveloped and there’s going to be a lot more people around, especially in the summer when people are trapped in a ferry line,” he said. “We’ve talked about visible fish tanks, maybe visible things from the promenade side.”

Many of his colleagues aren’t exactly excited to have people peering in at them as they conduct experiments, he said, but that public awareness is key to getting funding for their work. And there’s plenty of interest to tap into, he said.

“Even now, with as sketchy as everything is, we get more requests for tours than we can really handle.”

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