The history of Camas is inextricably linked to the paper mill that sits along Camas Slough. So, too, is the city’s future.
“The mill has been an active part of our community for over a century, and the site continues to be key for Camas and the region,” said Carrie Schulstad, executive director of the Downtown Camas Association, as reported by the Camas-Washougal Post-Record. “It’s critical that we get our community involved in its future, including how any contamination is cleaned up, since this influences how the site could be redeveloped one day.”
In the spring, the state Department of Ecology issued a draft of an agreed order for future hazardous material cleanup at the mill site. Now, the city is putting together a citizen advisory group that will help guide public participation in any eventual cleanup; applications are due Monday.
For now and the foreseeable future, the Georgia-Pacific mill remains in operation, but citizens are wise to begin preparing for life without the mill. As many cities have discovered, the future can be full of surprises when a corporation abandons an industrial site and leaves behind environmental contamination.
For a site that has hosted a paper mill for 135 years, there is likely to be contamination of soil and nearby waters. Cleanup costs often partly fall to the local government, and delays in redevelopment can hamper the local economy.
In that regard, Camas can look to nearby cities for some abject lessons. The Port of Ridgefield spent years reclaiming 41 acres of riverfront property from the contamination of an old wood-processing plant before the area could be developed. In Vancouver, it took 12 years to remove a Boise Cascade plant along the Columbia River and clean up the location before redevelopment could begin. That site is now The Waterfront Vancouver.
“It’s all complicated, and you can’t know for sure all the things you’re going to have to deal with. I sure didn’t,” Barry Cain, who has spearheaded the waterfront redevelopment, told The Columbian in 2017 while noting that the efforts are worthwhile. “Hell, it’s the Columbia River. It’s beautiful. It’s by far the best property in this area. I think it’s hard for a town to feel complete when the best property they have is not usable.”
Reclaiming its own waterfront is the key for Camas, which over the past several decades has demonstrated a clear view of the future. Understanding that they needed to diversify the local economy, city leaders in the mid-1980s made a concerted effort to expand the city’s boundaries and attract high-tech industry.
“Whether it was a slow death or a very rapid one, the mill was not going to be a Golden Goose,” former Mayor Nan Henriksen recalled in 2019. “When I became mayor, the mill provided about 70 percent of our property tax base; now it’s less than 10 percent.”
Since then, employment at the mill has dwindled. But the city has thrived because of its foresight. Such planning again is necessary as residents push the Department of Ecology for strict cleanup guidelines for the mill site.
“Any cleanup of the mill should really consider the most likely reuse of that property, and it is likely to be mixed-use,” one developer said at a public meeting. “Our community will fight vigorously for access to the waterfront and most successful repurposes of old waterfront industrial sites typically include public access to the water.”
It is all part of ensuring that the mill site is a vibrant part of Camas’ future as well as its past.