Camp Melacoma awaiting word on reopening

Logging activity underway at nonprofit youth camp

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

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Logging activity is now underway at Camp Melacoma, with proceeds earmarked to buy a water treatment system for the Washougal River Road camp's arsenic-tainted wells.

Meanwhile, leaders of the camp's nonprofit ownership group say they've been waiting since July for an answer from Skamania County officials on whether the facility can open as a "dry" camp. If so, the nonprofit could make revenue projections and generate booking deposits that also would help pay for the treatment system, Dodi Jensen said. She and her husband, Andy Jensen, formed the nonprofit Camp Melacoma Association and purchased the camp from Portland-based Camp Fire Columbia earlier this year.

The Jensens, who served as camp caretakers under the Camp Fire Columbia group, say their group's aim is to reopen and preserve the youth camp. Dodi Jensen said logging will only involve mature Alder trees on the northeastern tip of the 142-acre camp, which sits about 15 miles north of Washougal in the foothills of the Cascade Range. She could not estimate the expected proceeds from the work.

The association expects to pay between $55,000 and $75,000 for a water treatment system to remove the arsenic.

"This is about the kids not being able to come here and camp. They want to come back," Jensen said.

Meanwhile, a state official with the Southwest Drinking Water Operations office said his agency is trying to set up a meeting with county officials, camp leaders and Dr. Alan Melnick, who is now Clark County's public health officer and administrator. It was Melnick, a former county health officer, who ordered Camp Melacoma shut down in 2010.

Tainted wells

Two of the camp's underground wells exceeded the maximum contaminant levels for public water supplies, said Andy Anderson, assistant regional manager of the Southwest Drinking Water Operations office with the Washington state Department of Health.

Jensen said at this point, even if her organization gets the OK to schedule non-water-use bookings, it's likely too late in the year to schedule bookings for next summer at Camp Melacoma. Last she heard, the meeting had been pushed back to December.

"It takes people a year to plan their future camp," Jensen said.

The Jensens say they've taken steps to ensure no well water is accessible to the camp's 11 bunkhouse-style cabins and two lodges. They have locked up faucets, capped outdoor spigots and padlocked the camp's kitchen facility. They've also drained the camp's swimming pool.

"We've closed off every available source there was," Dodi Jensen said. She said warning signs may even be placed over the camp's toilet facilities.

The Jensens and their attorney hope to use the face-to-face meeting to present photos of the measures to Skamania County and state health officials.

Camp Melanoma served Camp Fire youth groups from all over the region until it was shut down for the naturally occurring arsenic, which officials have called the problem a persistent on in that part of the county.

Camp Fire did not treat the well, but instead, sold the site to the nonprofit Camp Melacoma Association for $150,000, The camp's acreage, much of it donated by the Wineberg family, is valued at more than $1.25 million.

The Jensens, who spent five years negotiating the camp purchase, say they need the OK to host campers while they move forward with the installation of the treatment system. It will then require a minimum 11- to 19-month pilot study to make sure the equipment is removing the arsenic.

"All we would do is rent the facility," Dodi Jensen said. "They (the groups) would bring their own kitchens, their own staff, their own food and their own water. All we would do is provide them with a place to camp."

Dodi Jensen said her organization is working on a treatment plan with two different engineering firms, including Olson Engineering Inc. in Vancouver and with Chris Nubbe, an Olympia-based engineer.

"The minute we get a plan, we'll get the water system installed," she said. "But I cannot even give tours for future rentals now."