Monday, May 10, 2021
May 10, 2021

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In Our View: Camas must prepare should paper mill close

The Columbian

Although Georgia-Pacific officials say they have no plans to close the Camas paper mill, city officials would be wise to prepare for the possibility.

“If we have a vision for aesthetically pleasing and vibrant mixed-use with waterfront access, we must ensure now that a required cleanup of the mill site is adequate and safe for mixed-use and not just good enough for more heavy industrial usage,” former Mayor Nan Henriksen recently told the city council.

At issue is an agreed order from the state Department of Ecology for future hazardous material cleanup at the site of the 135-year-old mill.

According to the Camas-Washougal Post-Record, state officials say the site has soils contaminated with total petroleum hydrocarbons from diesel, gasoline and oil. It also has other likely contaminants, including volatile organic compounds such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene; heavy metals; and persistent organic pollutants.

Any site used for heavy industry for more than a century is certain to be contaminated. And paper manufacturing is particularly dependent on the use of toxic chemicals.

Meanwhile, the Camas paper mill site presents a remarkable opportunity for the city. Located along the Camas Slough on the edge of downtown, it reflects the changing nature of American cities – a change represented by the transformation of a Boise Cascade plant into The Waterfront Vancouver.

Georgia-Pacific has scaled back operations in recent years, and the plant that once had more than 2,500 employees now has about 150. Its impact on the region remains extensive; in 2017, the mill had a property tax bill of $1.77 million, the largest in Clark County.

But Camas officials have wisely reduced the city’s reliance on the mill by diversifying the local economy. Camas has thrived, avoiding the death knell that has tolled for countless industrial cities.

Such a visionary approach again is required. City leaders should be involved in the examination of contamination on the site, working with Georgia-Pacific officials while also looking to the future. Cleanup efforts should go beyond industrial standards and prepare the site for eventual public access.

“My concern is, you get one shot to do it right,” said one resident, who has experience with industrial cleanups. “If it were cleaned up to industrial standards, anyone else who came in would have to do a new round. It gums up the works to actually build something there.”

If approved, the state’s order with Georgia-Pacific would require the company to investigate contamination at the site and “perform interim actions to address contamination when required.”

That has been an issue throughout the country. At the extreme end of contamination, the United States has 1,300 Superfund sites where leftover toxicity requires years of decontamination. Many of those sites have been “orphaned” by companies that declare bankruptcy and leave taxpayers holding the bill. Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rejected rules previously sought by the Obama administration requiring companies to reserve funds for eventual cleanup.

That is unlikely to be a concern in the case of the Camas mill. Georgia-Pacific is a wholly owned subsidiary of Koch Industries, judged by Forbes to be the nation’s largest privately held corporation with annual revenue of about $115 billion.

Regardless of who owns the Camas mill or who might own it in the future, the site is a jewel that city leaders should be diligent about polishing.