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Tacoma Tideflats paper mill to end operations this fall, affecting hundreds of workers

By Debbie Cockrell, The News Tribune
Published: August 3, 2023, 7:39am

TACOMA — The owner-operator of the Tacoma Tideflats paper mill has announced plans to close the site by the end of September..

WestRock Co. said in its announcement it would “permanently cease operating its paper mill in Tacoma … and will conclude production by September 30, 2023.”

The mill, 801 E. Portland Ave., was built in 1929, according to county records, and employs about 400 people.

Robby Johnson, media representative for WestRock, told The News Tribune in response to questions, “We have reviewed all options and designed our shutdown plan so that, once complete, the Tacoma site will be ready for sale.”

The decision follows news in July of the mill agreeing to pay Washington Department of Ecology $32,000 and complete a performance study as part of settlement terms following a penalty and compliance order issued last year.

The study was to help WestRock establish new operating conditions for its wastewater treatment plant. The paper mill, on the Tideflats along the Puyallup Waterway, was initially fined $52,000 in December 2022 for violating the company’s air-quality permit. Its air-quality permit requires the company treat wastewater to prevent hazardous pollutants from being released into the air.

According to Ecology, the WestRock site failed a performance test on April 17, 2022, when it insufficiently reduced hazardous air pollutants in the mill’s wastewater streams. WestRock passed a subsequent performance test May 11.

In its announcement Aug. 1, WestRock said, “The combination of high operating costs and the need for significant capital investment were the determining factors in the decision to cease operations at the mill.”

“WestRock is working to optimize our operational footprint and consolidate production in order to improve our return on invested capital, and we have made the difficult decision to close the Tacoma mill as part of this effort,” said David Sewell, WestRock chief executive officer, in the announcement.

“One of the most critical factors we consider when making the difficult decision to close a facility is the impact it will have on the lives of our team members, and we are committed to assisting our Tacoma team with exploring roles at other WestRock locations and nearby companies as well as providing outplacement assistance,” Sewell added.

The mill produces kraft and white top liner and bleached pulp “for a combined annual capacity of 510,000 tons,” according to the company. The majority of the kraft and white top liner work will go to other mills “in the WestRock system,” the company said.

“Approximately 60,000 annual tons of pulp and 25,000 annual tons of specialty grade capacity will be reduced due to the shutdown,” it added.

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Workers at the Tacoma site “will receive severance and outplacement assistance in accordance with WestRock policy and labor union agreements,” the company noted.

WestRock, a corrugated packaging company, is the result of a July 2015 merger of MeadWestvaco and RockTenn.

RockTenn purchased the former Simpson Tacoma Kraft mill in May 2014 for more than $368 million, county records show. RockTenn, in an earlier announcement of its intent to purchase the mill, said it was “committed to invest $60 million in the mill during the next three years and has also entered into a 7-year wood chip supply contract with Simpson Lumber Company.”

RockTenn’s James Porter, then-president of the company’s Paper Solutions division, told The News Tribune at the time that Simpson should be credited for improving the plant’s energy and water usage, as well as eliminating odor that used to be the plant’s contribution to any “Tacoma Aroma.”

WestRock employs more than 58,000 workers worldwide.