All Camas-loving ‘papermakers’ should want to be involved in mill cleanup, future

Despite shuttering its pulp mill, closing its “Roaring 20” office paper line and laying off nearly two-thirds of its workforce in 2018, Georgia-Pacific, which still operates one paper line and employs 150 workers at the downtown Camas paper mill, says it has no intention of leaving Camas anytime soon. 

“We expect the Camas mill to be a strong and thriving facility into the future and that is why GP is investing in it,” Georgia-Pacific spokesperson Kristi Ward told the Post-Record this week. “We have no plans to shutdown the facility or sell any part of the main mill property.” 

Regardless, Camas residents and city leaders would be wise to take an active interest in the inevitable environmental cleanup of the Camas paper mill and consider future uses for the mill site in case GP changes its mind or market conditions (or heavy environmental cleanup costs) force the closure of the mill. 

As Nan Henriksen — the former Camas mayor most often associated with having the foresight to know that her “one mill” hometown would need to diversify its employer base if it wanted to survive — and others, including the CEO of the Port of Camas-Washougal, have pointed out: the mill site, which is located smack dab in the heart of Camas’ historic downtown and on a highly coveted slice of waterfront, has unlimited potential for the community.
“If we have a vision for aesthetically pleasing and vibrant mixed-use with waterfront access to all in the future, 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,” Henriksen warned Camas City Council members last month, adding that she would do all she could to “make sure we keep our options open for a 21st Century vision.”

Camas residents don’t have to look too far to see examples of what the site — once it is no longer suitable for a paper mill — could become: 

In Anacortes, Washington, a two-year cleanup (2008-09) by the Port of Anacortes and Kimberly-Clark worked to restore the site of the former Scott paper mill, which had contaminated soil, groundwater and marine sediments with a smorgasbord of toxic chemicals. The cleanup covered 25 acres, including a 75-foot shoreline buffer zone and disposed of more than 145,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil. Today, the site, which overlooks Fidalgo Bay and neighbors the Cap Sante Marina, is home to Anacortes’ Seafarers’ Memorial Park and open to the public for community events, weddings and educational or maritime classes. 

Likewise, the history of the Blue Heron paper mill site in Oregon City, Oregon, shows what can happen after an extensive paper mill cleanup. The Canadian firm that purchased the shuttered mill in 2014 spent about $1.6 million cleaning up the site and layering mesh, compost-filled “socks” to trap the heavy metals flushing down the side of the mill site before they entered the Willamette River. In 2019, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde purchased the 23-acre site and began working on a design that may soon provide access to the nearby Willamette Falls for members of the tribe and the public; “restore long-lost natural basalt landscape and water channels,” restore the riparian habitat for fish and wildlife; build a riverside path, open public gathering spots and build a mixed-use development on the northern end of the land.

The Washington State Department of Ecology will hold a public hearing to discuss its draft Agreed Order and Public Participation Plan for the Camas mill’s initial environmental cleanup later this month. 

The state’s draft order for the Camas mill cleanup shows the site is contaminated with an abundance of toxic chemicals known to harm wildlife and humans, including total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH) from diesel, gasoline, and oil as well as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and carcinogenic PAHs; benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes (BTEX); polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); metals (lead and chromium); and dioxins and furans.

Studies have shown paper and pulp mill workers have increased risks for lung cancer, malignant lymphomas and stomach cancer. In Maine, dioxin pollution from seven paper mills discharging into five different rivers in the mid-1980s so thoroughly poisoned the waters and the fish, that the National Resources Council of Maine noted that, 30 years later, “women of childbearing age are still warned strictly limit their intake of fish caught from 250 miles of Maine’s rivers below paper mills and (eat) no tomalley from lobsters caught along the entire coast.” 

Local environmental groups have long been worried about the Camas paper mill’s impacts on the air, water and community’s health.

In 2015, the nonprofit environmental advocacy group Columbia Riverkeep weighed in on the renewal of the Camas mill’s national pollution discharge elimination system permit, stating they were “deeply concerned about GP Camas’ impacts on the Columbia River” and noting that “dioxins and furans in the mill’s effluent are among the most toxic pollutants ever tested on fish, and are especially harmful to juvenile salmon and steelhead.”

Indeed, the mill’s pollution and future cleanup should be a concern for everyone who lives, works and plays in Camas. 

Port leaders have already weighed in and stated their hope that the property will someday be cleaned up to standards that would suit more than just heavy industrial uses. It is time for Camas city leaders to do the same.