RIDGEFIELD — The Port of Ridgefield last month realized its decade-long goal of cleaning up a heavily contaminated industrial site near a tributary of the Columbia River. With that, there's renewed optimism that a mixed-use waterfront development will take shape there.
But such a project is still years away, as the port and city of Ridgefield work to resolve access barriers to the property and attract developers interested in taking a shot at a site just cleared for development by the state Department of Ecology. Underneath the matting of rain-soaked green grass, spreading across 41 acres, the port has successfully capped contamination that, at one time, was considered among the worst in the state.
For three decades, Pacific Wood Treating used the property to treat telephone poles and railroad ties with a chemical preserving agent.
Mayor Ron Onslow, who lives just north of the BNSF Railway tracks that bound the top of the port site, said the property, known as Millers' Landing, holds the promise of transforming the area into a place for people both to work and live. Less than a month after receiving a consent decree from the Department of Ecology, meaning the site can be built on, Onslow called the area "pristine."
"This is going to be a great avenue to the Columbia River," Onslow said, from a vantage point on Millers' Landing, looking out toward Lake River. "It's just so quiet here."
At an Oct. 23 signing ceremony for the consent decree, Jim Pendowski, toxic cleanups program manager for the Department of Ecology, said the project was an important one for Ridgefield's future.
Looking toward that future, though, the port and the city have one more challenge: making Millers' Landing bustle. Right now, the BNSF rail line acts as a wall to the property. Traffic going toward the river often has to stop and wait for trains to pass. Dozens of trains a day rumble through the city, signaling their presence with their horns.
On top of that, speculative development — the type that's typically built for multiple tenants — remains at a standstill in Clark County. Of the six million square feet of multi-tenant space in the county, 1.1 million square feet is vacant. That represents a vacancy rate of 18.3 percent, which real estate professionals consider too high to justify building more space.
Eric Fuller, principal at Vancouver-based brokerage firm Eric Fuller & Associates, said the start of development will likely depend on when the county recovers from a lag in real estate activity caused by the Great Recession. He called Millers' Landing a great prospect for a tenant who doesn't mind being in a secluded area.
"Right now, you simply have to have the opportunity available," Fuller said. "We're in the early stages of recovery, and I hope it gets stronger."
The property is appealing because of its proximity to the river, he said. But it might take time to properly market it.
The port has time to wait.
Before development can take place, the port plans to build an overpass from Pioneer Street at Main Avenue, stretching across the railroad tracks to create a direct connection to the port's land. The $12 million project is dependent on state financing. A draft transportation financing package before the state Legislature earmarks $7 million for the project, but that amount could change.
Fuller said he doesn't expect the property to receive strong interest from developers until the overpass is completed.
That sentiment is echoed by Brent Grening, the executive director of the port. And while the overpass may take shape within the next couple of years, actual development likely won't happen for another five or six. The port has already started marketing Millers' Landing to real estate brokers to gauge their interest and hasn't shied away from mentioning its past as a brownfield site previously used for industrial purposes .
Grening said the site is safe, with all pollution capped underground. And even if contaminants are found on the property, the port will ultimately be responsible for disposing of them because it will continue to own Millers' Landing.
"A tenant here will know more about this site than any other property they might look at," Grening said, referring to the paper trail documenting the cleanup.
In the absence of what's known as a "recorded notice" for the site, indicating the property is environmentally damaged, there's nothing to scare away tenants, said Kelly McDonald, a manager at several Clark County Title Co. offices. Even though the site was the home to extensive pollution in the past, the port has taken steps to remediate the damage, he said
"Obviously, the port has already done this step with the state," McDonald said. What that means for developers is a clean bill of health for the property.
Unlike other property owners, Grening said, the port can show prospective tenants exactly how Millers' Landing transformed over the years — from a clunky industrial property sitting atop a stew of black chemicals, to an unsullied field.
Past and future
Millers' Landing — sloping toward Lake River to the south and abutting a wildlife refuge to the west — was the site of Pacific Wood Treating from 1964 to 1993.
Just under the surface of the wood-treating mill, a hodgepodge of chemicals — creosote, copper chromium arsenic and pentachlorophenol, a known carcinogen — leached into the soil and waterway, mixing to create a viscous, highly volatile black sludge that residents were unaware of.
Lee Wells, a city council member, has lived in Ridgefield since 1954. He said Pacific Wood Treating was a good neighbor during its time in Ridgefield. The company donated equipment to the city and the local Lion's Club for its annual auction.
"If you ever needed anything," Wells said, "they were mostly community people (at the mill), and dedicated to the community."
The extent of the contamination didn't become known until the end of the 1990s.
A decade ago, the port began its cleanup efforts in earnest, when it began pumping 250-degree steam into the ground to loosen the sludge, so it could be sucked up. The port extracted more than 25,000 gallons out of the ground and shipped the gunk by truck to a facility in Utah, where it was incinerated. The property was then capped by layers of clean soil.
Cleanup of the site cost $70 million, and only a sliver of that, roughly $1.8 million, was covered by Pacific Wood Treating's insurance after the company went belly-up.
At Millers' Landing, Onslow said the city and the port will work together to make the property work to justify the expense. That will mean a development with a mix of retail, office space and high-density housing. Including housing will mean activity in the area won't die after 5 p.m., Onslow said.
There's still work to be done, in addition to building an overpass. For one, the port needs to remove 53 pilings on Lake River. For another, the river needs to be dredged. But the most difficult work, the port says, has been completed.
The port says it's confident it can assure developers the property is clean.
"I know we can because of the amount of data we have, the levels of cleanup we achieved and what the chemicals are," Grening said. "We can assure an end user that working on-site is safe and there's no reason to worry about anything."