The Camas identity will take a hit next year as hundreds of papermakers are set to lose their jobs.
Georgia-Pacific on Tuesday announced it plans to shut down several operations at its Camas mill and cut up to 300 jobs. Between 120 and 140 jobs will remain at the mill, which opened in 1885 and in the 1980s employed around 2,400.
“The paper mill is the reason Camas exists,” said Peter Capell, city administrator. “The biggest concern we have about this is the people. They have mortgages, college payments, retirement. It’s something I wouldn’t wish on anybody.”
The Atlanta, Ga.-based company and subsidiary of Koch Industries said the cuts stem from dives in demand for communications paper, mainly used in offices for printers, copiers and the like.
“It’s definitely not a reflection of the employees, they have worked very hard and taken a lot of pride in running these assets and keeping them going, but it’s just a situation where it’s a declining marketplace,” said spokeswoman Kristi Ward. “People just aren’t using as much office paper as they used to.”
Closures aren’t expected to start until the second quarter of 2018. Employees were told Tuesday morning in meetings, Ward said. She added that they hoped to give workers time to make plans.
“We felt it was the right thing to communicate to employees so they can start making plans for their future,” she said.
Georgia-Pacific will meet with labor leaders to figure out how the mill will be staffed until operations end. Salaried employees will be met with individually, she said.
Labor leaders disagreed with the reasoning. Greg Pallesen, president of the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, said demand for paper products remains high, but paper products from Asia are being imported cheaper.
“It’s a terrible situation,” he said.
Workers at the Camas mill will face an uncertain future. The union represents mechanics, pipefitters, janitorial staff and more classifications. The average worker is in his or her late 40s, according to Brian Anderson, who represents the local workers.
“They’re facing going from one of the better paid industries across the board to abject poverty, with little concern by the corporation they work for,” he said. “This (decision) was made by accountants. We were a world-class paper mill not even six months ago.”
Braced for decline
Though saddened by the closures, Camas residents said they have braced for the mill’s decline for years. Brent Erickson, executive director of the Camas-Washougal Chamber of Commerce, said he started hearing rumors of closures as early as 2003.
He added that employment at the mill declined over time and its closure is today pretty far removed from its heyday in the 1980s. Most recently, corporate restructuring led to 300 layoffs in 2007.
Erickson also said the impact on the town won’t be as severe as it would’ve been in the 1980s if the mill was going through these same cuts.
“Our city leaders recognized that we couldn’t depend on the mill as the lifeblood of the city,” he said. “They diversified our businesses.”
Some Camas residents said they are determined to keep the history alive. Melissa McCusker said when she opened her restaurant Feast 316 two years ago she hoped to hang old parts of the mill on the restaurant’s walls.
“I think everyone here has positive stories about the mill,” she said. “I’ll always remember how much they gave to education. They really invested in the children. This is the end of an era. That’s what Camas is about.”
Camas mill timeline
• 1883: Henry Pittock’s LaCamas Colony Co. bought 2,600 acres to build a paper mill to supply newsprint for The Oregonian.
• 1884: The Columbia River Paper Company was formed.
• 1885: The mill began producing wood pulp.
• 1905: Columbia River Paper merged with Crown Paper Co. of Oregon City, Ore., to form the Crown Columbia Paper Co.
• 1911: The mill’s 450 employees earned $300,000 in wages.
• 1913: The mill converted from steam to electric power.
• 1914: Crown Columbia merged with Willamette Paper to form Crown Willamette Paper Co.
• 1928: Crown Willamette merged with Zellerbach Paper to form Crown Zellerbach Corp., the largest paper company on the West Coast.
• 1930: The mill stopped making newsprint and began producing specialty paper; the mill began producing Zee bath tissue.
• 1941: To support the war effort, machine shops were converted to manufacture shipyard parts.
• 1950: Facial folded napkins were made for the first time.
• 1971: Crown Zellerbach was the county’s biggest manufacturing employer with 2,643 workers.
• 1984: A three-year, $425 million mill modernization included a new machine to make communication papers for copiers and printing.
• 1986: Crown Zellerbach’s mills were sold to James River Corp.
• 1993: The mill installed and started up a facility dedicated to communication papers.
• 1995: After 10 years of job attrition, the mill employed about 1,600.
• 1997: James River Corp. merged with Fort Howard Corp. to form Fort James Corp.
• 2000: Current mill owner Georgia-Pacific acquired Fort James.
• 2005: Georgia-Pacific became a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries.
• 2017: The Georgia-Pacific mill had Clark County’s biggest property tax bill, $1.77 million.
• 2018: The mill’s communication papers machine, fine paper converting assets, pulping operations and related equipment slated to shut down.