‘You get one shot to do it right’: Residents, officials weigh in on future cleanup at Camas paper mill

Georgia-Pacific says it has no intention of closing or selling mill; state will host meeting April 20 to discuss cleanup, public participation plans

Camas residents, officials and even a former mayor are weighing in on what they say could be a critical step in the future of the city’s historic downtown area.

“Almost 40 years ago, the Camas City Council and I worked together and took bold action to change our city’s vision of itself and tried to ensure long-term fiscal viability, focusing on an excellent quality of life for future generations of Camasonians,” former Camas mayor and lifelong Camas resident Nan Henriksen recently told the Camas City Council. “Now, you have a similar opportunity to alter our city’s vision and destiny.”

The opportunity, Henriksen said, is to ensure any required cleanup at the nearly 135-year-old Camas paper mill, located at 401 N.E. Adams St., in downtown Camas, will be done to standards that would allow for something other than heavy industrial uses if Georgia-Pacific (GP) ever decides to close the mill and sell its property.

The Washington State Department of Ecology has issued a draft of an agreed order for future hazardous material cleanup at the Camas paper mill, and will hold an online public hearing on the draft order at 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 20.

“Even though the mill is currently zoned Heavy Industrial, I would be surprised if the city’s future vision for that property is for more heavy industrial (uses),” Henriksen told the city council. “If we have a vision for aesthetically pleasing and vibrant mixed-use with waterfront access (in downtown Camas), 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 and others have urged Camas city officials to get more involved with the state’s environmental cleanup orders at the downtown Camas paper mill “before it’s too late.”

The state has said the Camas paper mill site, which has been used for heavy industrial purposes since the late 1880s, has soils contaminated with total petroleum hydrocarbons from diesel, gasoline, oil and “other likely contaminants,” including carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; the volatile organic compounds benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene; polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); heavy metals, including lead and chromium; and persistent organic pollutants, including dioxins and furans, that are toxic to humans and wildlife.

If approved, the state’s order with GP would require the company to investigate contamination of its own mill site and “perform interim actions to address contamination when required.”

Although GP has not indicated it has any plans to close the Camas mill in the near future, several Camas residents and local leaders have pointed to the need for city officials and others to “have a seat at the table” during the initial stages of the mill site cleanup.

“My concern is: you get one shot to do it right,” said Randal Friedman, a Camas resident who worked as a government affairs manager for the United States Navy’s Southwest region for many years and helped the Navy meet stringent California environmental regulations as it cleaned up several sites, including two Superfund sites. “If it were cleaned up to industrial standards, anyone else who came in would have to do a new round (of environmental cleanup). It gums up the works to actually build something there.”

Friedman said he would like to see local officials from the city of Camas and the Port of Camas-Washougal have more of a say in the state’s requirements regarding the mill’s environmental cleanup.

“No one is suggesting that the cleanup be done to daycare standards … but we have to have a seat at the table,” Friedman said.

That is why he has urged city officials to get involved in the process.

“I would hope to see some city leadership — at a minimum, a letter from the city administrator,” Friedman said. “I’m hoping that it will be more of an open process. Now is the only time the public can interact (with the remedial cleanup plan).”

Friedman said he hopes more Camas residents will call on city officials to come up with a downtown plan or concept to show what the mill site might become if GP ever decides to close the mill completely and sell the property.

“People need to get an idea of what they would like to see done there,” Friedman said. “The more you can dial-in future uses, the more you can do a better job with cleanup and have a less-costly cleanup. We have a chance to get it right at the start.”

State notes several leaks, spills of toxic materials since 2011

Friedman recently sounded the alert about a draft agreement order with GP that addresses toxic contamination at the Camas site.

The Ecology could soon require GP to prepare a remedial investigation report and “perform interim actions, as needed, where there has been a release or threatened release of hazardous substances.”

The draft order lists several instances involving the leakage or release of toxic materials that have occurred at the Camas mill since 2011, including:

  • Holes and cracks discovered in the bottom of a 350,000-gallon, above-ground filtrate tank containing “weak black liquor” — a pulping waste product that can cause burns to the skin, eyes and respiratory tract — with “black liquor observed in the underlying fill material beneath the tank” in August 2011;
  • A release of weak black liquor in the old Kraft Mill basement in June 2014;
  • The discovery of hazardous hydrocarbons in the soil near the mill’s wood yard in September 2015;
  • A release of diesel into the Camas Slough in February 2017;
  • The discovery of fuel oil in soil near a decommissioned fuel oil tank in March 2018;
  • The spilling of approximately 154,000 gallons of black liquor on the mill property in April 2018; and
  • The discoveries of petroleum contaminated soil in two different locations in August 2020; and in October 2020.

Friedman said he saw the state’s order requiring the remedial investigation report earlier this year, and was alarmed to see few mechanisms for public involvement in the cleanup process.

“I was hoping it would be a more open process,” Friedman said.

David Ripp, chief executive officer of the Port of Camas-Washougal, agreed.

Ripp emailed Angela Fritz, the communication and public engagement lead for the state’s Department of Ecology last month to say the Port had a vested interest in a public participation plan regarding any required environmental cleanup orders at the Camas mill.

“The Port … has always had a strong interest in the future of the Georgia-Pacific mill site. We feel sometime in the future this mill will be closed and Camas’ next chapter will begin,” Ripp stated in his email to Fritz.

Ripp added that Port leaders believed the mill site would likely be used for commercial, retail and mixed-use usages, instead of heavy industrial.

“The timing of all this is unknown, but planning ahead will benefit our community in the future,” Ripp stated. “The Port supports the creation of an advisory committee to provide public input into the full Camas mill cleanup and interim action process. This includes interim documents such as the sampling plan and the design of cleanup standards. If this advisory group is created, the Port will be a participant.”

The state is accepting comments on the draft cleanup for the mill through April 23, and will hold an online public meeting, followed by a hearing to accept oral arguments, at 6 p.m. April 20. To join the hearing, call 415-655-0001 and enter the access code 133 077 1173. Participants are asked to register in advance at https://bit.ly/3wcFmBd.

The public can comment at the public hearing on April 20, or submit written comments online at tcp.ecology.commentinput.com/?id=QKdGS or via mail, postmarked by April 23, to Shingo Yamazaki, Department of Ecology – Industrial Section, P.O. Box 47600, Olympia, WA 98504-7600. To read more information about the draft cleanup order, visit

GP says it has ‘no plans to close Camas mill’

GP spokesperson Kristi Ward said the company feels there has been some miscommunication regarding the mill’s future plans in Camas.

Ward noted that the company has been planning to decommission parts of the Camas mill since 2017, when GP announced the closure of the local mill’s pulping operations and communications paper line.

“(In 2017), we noted plans to remove buildings and equipment no longer needed,” Ward said.

She pointed to GP’s recent $15 million investment in the Camas mill — including a new package boiler that will increase the mill’s steam generation and reduce emissions; a project that will allow the mill to recycle more water, therefore reducing water consumption and wastewater discharge; and upgrades that will improve the mill’s wireless capabilities and internal network — as proof the company, which currently employs 150 workers at its Camas paper mill, plans to remain in downtown Camas for the foreseeable future.

“We have no plans to sell the property,” Ward said. “We’re still an operating facility and have hard working people working around the clock.”

Despite GP s insistence that it has no plans to leave Camas anytime soon, Friedman and others have urged Camas city officials to get involved in the early stages of the mill’s environmental cleanup.

“I know there’s a lot of politics going on in Camas right now, but this should be bigger than that,” Friedman said. “Everyone should want to have the city have a seat at the table.”

Camas Mayor Barry McDonnell and Camas City Administrator Jamal Fox did not respond directly to requests for comment, but the city’s communication director, Bryan Rachal, sent a statement to the Post-Record on March 15, stating: “The city of Camas and GP have been linked throughout our history as strategic partners. Because of this, we know that (the) future of the mill site will have a significant impact on the community. What that impact will be has yet to be determined. However, from a regulatory and permitting perspective, the city will be involved. We look forward to the next steps in the process, including the upcoming public hearing. Overall, we are excited for the potential opportunities that exist.”

Ward said GP leaders “expect the Camas mill to be a strong and thriving facility into the future, and that is why GP is investing in it, including a new boiler that will start up soon and a significant investment to the mill’s paper machine this year.”

Ward said, once Ecology issued the agreed order, the cleanup at the mill “is going to be a multi-year process.”

“The agreed order is not about the future use of the mill, and we have no plans to shutdown the facility or sell any part of the main mill property,” Ward said. “Camas team members continue to work hard to make products around the clock to help our customers in health care and other places to help with hygiene and sanitation.”