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Tuesday, February 27, 2024
Feb. 27, 2024

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Columbia Ventures leases shuttered West Linn paper mill

Vancouver-based company announces five-year deal

By , Columbian business reporter

Vancouver-based Columbia Ventures Corporation has acquired the assets of the shuttered paper mill in West Linn, Ore., entered into a five-year lease to rent the property, and plans to restart operations.

Columbia Ventures announced the news in a press release Wednesday. The mill will be operated by a new subsidiary called Willamette Falls Paper Company.

The new company owns the mill’s three paper machines, which have a combined potential capacity of 260,000 tons. The company will restart just one of them, but plans to eventually scale up to run two or all three machines if things go well.

The West Linn mill shut its doors in 2017 and is one of several paper mills in the Portland region that have either closed or substantially scaled back in recent years, including the nearby Blue Heron paper mill in Oregon City and George-Pacific’s Camas paper mill.

But Columbia Ventures CEO Ken Peterson said he sees several potential opportunities to give the West Linn plant a new lease on life.

“There have been a lot of changes in the industry since it went down,” he said. “This is a cyclical industry.”

The West Linn plant is the only West Coast producer of coated freesheet paper — the type of paper used in magazines — and the number of competitors nationwide is decreasing, Peterson said, noting that paper producer Verso recently announced that it would close a large paper mill in Luke, Md., that specialized in coated freesheet.

Verso cited competition from foreign imports as one of the reasons for the closure, and Peterson said the West Linn plant’s location makes it better positioned to compete with imports coming from the west.

Another industry change was the 2018 introduction of China’s National Sword policy, which imposed much tougher standards on the level of contamination permitted in imported recyclable materials. The policy left many U.S. waste haulers without a market for their material, including paper products.

The West Linn plant can’t currently process those products, Peterson said, but he’s eager to look into developing that capability in order to provide a new option for local waste utilities.

“We have great optionality,” he said.

The West Linn mill is Peterson’s second foray into the paper and pulp industry; Columbia Ventures is also the majority owner of Northwest Straw Pulp, which is nearly finished with construction of a new pulp mill near Starbuck, in Eastern Washington.

The Starbuck mill is a first-of-its-kind facility designed to manufacture pulp fiber from wheat straw, and Peterson plans to take a similar non-traditional approach for the West Linn mill, looking for ways to integrate more sustainable fiber sources such as wheat straw pulp, hemp and agricultural waste.

The majority of the West Linn mill property is owned by Portland General Electric, which operates a hydroelectric plant on the Willamette River nearby. Willamette Falls Paper’s new lease includes two five-year extension options.

The city of West Linn has been working on a master plan to redevelop its waterfront, and PGE joined that planning effort after the mill’s closure was announced. PGE spokeswoman Andrea Platt said the utility provider intends to continue those long-term discussions with the city while moving forward with the new mill lease in the immediate term.

Willamette Falls Paper will try to rehire workers who were laid off when the mill closed, Peterson said. Brian Konen, formerly the chief operating officer of previous mill owner West Linn Paper, will serve as president of Willamette Falls Paper.

“Our previous employees were shocked and disappointed when the mill shut down 20 months ago, and it has been a goal of mine to find a new owner and restart the plant,” Konen said in a statement. “Many highly skilled and experienced employees want to return to work in West Linn, and we are excited to welcome them back.”

The new company is expected to employ 85 people at the start, with more coming on board as operations ramp up and the other machines come online. Roughly 250 workers lost their jobs when the mill closed.

Once enough employees are on the job, Peterson said the first order of business will be to conduct a thorough inspection of the plant and perform and needed repairs or renovations.

“Our plan is by the end of the summer we’ll be up and operating,” he said.

Columbian business reporter