Donnelly: Lack of political will factor in Camas mill cuts

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Ann Donnelly

As our region contemplates the announced closure of the Camas papermaking operations and the loss of up to 300 family-wage jobs, laid-off workers may ask if more could have been done to save their jobs.

We should all be asking that question, as our communities struggle with spiking homelessness, rising housing costs, and stagnant wages. The Camas plant has given long-term sustenance to hundreds of families and many local businesses.

Decades ago, Camas’ mayor and other local leaders accepted the mill closure as inevitable. What if they had identified those measures most likely to keep the mill open and doggedly pursued them?

Nan Henriksen, Camas mayor from 1983 to 1992, during some of the mill’s most economically turbulent times, explains that mill closure was then considered inevitable. “The looming reality was that the mill was going to go away. It wasn’t a matter of ‘if.’ It was ‘when,’ ” she told The Columbian.

Why didn’t leaders ask what it would take to keep the mill open? But instead, the political will turned away from supporting the plant’s survival to accepting its eventual closure. Street demonstrations in favor of mill workers, or steely eyed declarations from political leaders that the plant would stay open, never occurred.

The path set by Henriksen and successors proved generally popular with the new, growing population. But why did the future of Camas have to be either the mill or the new businesses? Both were worthy objectives.

Explanations differ as to the major factor in the closure of paper operations. Georgia-Pacific’s official explanation to The Columbian was “declining marketplace … people just aren’t using as much office paper as they used to.” But a company laying off workers will not give the local newspaper an insider’s look at the economic calculus. State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, cited “the competitive global marketplace” referenced by Georgia-Pacific, while Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, zeroed in on rising environmental costs and regulatory risks.

In a Nov. 15 statement, Pike cited “additional water and air standards … and the possibility of new carbon taxes.” Indeed, Gov. Jay Inslee has evidenced scant concern for the Camas mill workers while pushing new regulations.

Demand will continue

Future success of such a plant depends on many factors beyond demand: secure supply of raw materials, taxes and other costs to produce the product there, and regulatory/political uncertainty, any combination of which may push the long-term economic outlook into negative territory. Alternate sites — in this case, G-P’s Port Hudson, La., plant — compete. Company politics may enter the picture.

Future demand for printing and writing paper is large. Market forecast expert Craig Johnston in the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Forestry, in a 2016 study improved on U.S. Forest Service forecasts, which he regarded as too bullish, with a detailed model of world paper demand.

He modeled several scenarios of full internet adoption. His forecast showed decreased U.S. demand, but even under his pessimistic scenario (full internet adoption by 2050), the U.S. is forecasted to need 2,267,000 metric tons of printing and writing paper per year. Canada and Mexico bring the total to 4,772,000 metric tons.

Paper will still be needed in large supply far into the future. Yet with demand a challenge, costs and risks will determine U.S. papermaking winners and losers. Local political will can make the difference. Sadly, decades ago, we gave up on our paper mill, and that is one reason the self-fulfilling prophesy set decades ago — mill closure — is now reality.