Dozens of Camas residents and public officials have urged the state’s Department of Ecology to look beyond the current heavy-industrial use at the Geogia-Pacific paper mill in downtown Camas and push for more restrictive cleanup standards.
“The fate of the mill is probably the biggest thing to impact downtown Camas since the city was founded,” Camas developer Rick Marshall told Ecology staff at an April 20 public hearing on the future mill cleanup. “The redevelopment of the mill property could be a huge economic benefit to our community that also provides additional public amenities for our region.”
About 50 people attended the virtual public meeting with Ecology on April 20. The state had published notice of the meeting in the Post-Record, mailed notices to 83 residents and stakeholders and emailed 180 other individuals interested in the mill cleanup process.
Marshall, along with many others who submitted written comments and spoke at the April 20 hearing said Ecology staff should consider the fact that, once the mill is no longer operational, the property — which sits on downtown Camas’ only usable waterfront — will most likely be converted to a mixed-use site.
“Any cleanup of the mill should really consider the most likely reuse of that property and it is likely to be mixed-use,” Marshall said. “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.”
Others, including several Camas City Council members, agreed.
“The city has enjoyed a long, collaborative history with mill owners over the decades and foresee this relationship continuing,” Camas Councilwoman Bonnie Carter wrote in her comment to Ecology. “As mill operations potentially change in the future, it would be desirable to ensure the land is cleaned up and ready for future mixed-use zoning options, which are more stringent than the current heavy industrial zoning.”
Other Camas City Council members shared similar sentiments, noting they were speaking as private Camas residents and not as a spokesperson for the city.
“The Camas-Washougal community and the city of Camas have benefited from over a century of economic activity and partnership with the GP paper mill under various owners. We want this beneficial partnership to continue today and in the future,” Camas Councilwoman Ellen Burton told Ecology staff. “Nevertheless, when the mill is no longer a viable enterprise we want to guarantee the Department of Ecology, GP and the community have proactively partnered to position us well for the next chapter. This chapter is mixed-used of both commercial and residential where all community members can enjoy the property, not heavy industrial.”
Burton urged Ecology to involve the community in the cleanup process, establish an advisory committee and use mixed-use standards when drafting a cleanup order with GP.
Shingo Yamazaki, the Ecology site manager, explained what the state hopes to discover during this first stage of investigation.
“We want to understand what, where and how much (contamination is at the mill site),” Yamazaki said during the April 20 hearing, held online due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Ecology staff already knows the GP mill site, which has been used as a paper and pulping mill since the late 1880s, has petroleum hydrocarbons contamination from diesel, gasoline and oil.
Now, Ecology hopes to determine what other pollutants, including dioxins and furans; heavy metals such as lead and chromium; polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs); carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); and benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes (BTEX), may be lurking in the soil and groundwater near the sprawling mill site in downtown Camas.
Yamazaki said the cleanup process would begin with a remedial investigation to find contamination sites at the mill site.
“This could take a couple years,” Yamazaki noted. “It’s a large site, and we want to be very thoughtful and deliberate with our approach.”
Ecology will provide chances for the public to weigh in officially and will take comments from interested members of the public — as well as tips from former GP mill employees or others in the know regarding possible contamination spots — throughout the cleanup process, Yamazaki added.
“This isn’t your only opportunity for participation,” he told the April 20 hearing participants. “There will be additional legal agreements between Ecology and GP for later steps .. and more public participation for those orders.”
Dozens of interested Camas-area residents joined the April 20 public meeting to take part in an informal question-and-answer session with Ecology staff.
Many of the public’s questions revolved around the state’s required cleanup level at the mill site.
“Are soil cleanup levels likely to be industrial or will other levels be considered?” asked Camas resident Randal Friedman.
Yamazaki said the state would typically look at the current and expected future uses at the site to determine cleanup levels.
“GP could own the property forever,” he noted. “They indicated to us that they have no intention of selling or moving away.”
Yamazaki added that, if Ecology staff “had some indication that other future uses were likely,” they could develop a cleanup order based on non-industrial uses.
That level of detail is likely quite a few steps down the road, Yamazaki noted.
“When you’re talking about cleanup levels, you’re talking about four steps ahead of where we’re at,” he said. “Cleanup levels are definitely important, but also very far in the future.”
Garin Schrieve, another site manager for Ecology, agreed with Yamazaki’s assessment.
“This step is about understanding potential contamination issues at the (mill) site,” Schrieve said at the April 20 meeting. “It will be a few steps down the line before we’re talking about cleanup levels. We’re building a foundation to be able to make those decisions (in the future).”
All three Port of Camas-Washougal commissioners, as well as the Port’s chief executive officer, David Ripp, showed up to the April 20 hearing to urge tougher cleanup standards at the mill site.
“We feel, sometime in the future, the mill will be closed and Camas’ next chapter will begin,” Ripp told Ecology staff on April 20, noting the site would likely move away from industrial uses after the mill was gone.
“The Port supports the creation of a public advisory committee and would like to be a part of that during the cleanup,” Ripp said.
“The GP mill is a viable business in East Clark County, providing jobs and economic benefits,” Port Commissioner Larry Keister added. “At such a time when the property does become available, it must meet the level of cleanup for mixed-use.”
Asked how widespread the contamination might be beyond the immediate mill site, Ecology staff said that is part of why they are undertaking this first-step, remedial investigation.
“As of right now, we don’t believe there’s widespread contamination,” Yamazaki said. “Our general inclination is that it’s generally localized. We don’t have any indication that there’s a huge groundwater plume headed somewhere (into the city or its downtown shopping district), but, that said, that’s why we do remedial investigation.”
Although most remedial investigations at paper mill sites begin once the mill has closed, Yamazaki said Ecology wanted to be proactive at the Camas mill.
“With GP, their footprint shrunk a little,” he said, referring to the mill’s 2018 shutdown of its pulping operations and closure of one of its last two paper lines. “The mill has been operating since 1885, so we knew there was potential contamination on areas that weren’t being used right now, and we wanted to get ahead of the curve a little, so we said, ‘Let’s get the ball rolling and start looking in these areas.’ We don’t have to wait 100 years for GP to move on from the site for us to investigate if we know there are some areas of concern. So this was an Ecology-driven thing where we were trying to … be more proactive.”
The remedial investigation will likely take two to three years, said Ecology’s industrial section manager James DeMay.
“We will go out for public comment before the remedial investigation plan is finalized,” DeMay said, “but this can take a long time.”
Former mill employees, family members push for strict cleanup requirements
Some of the people who spoke at the April 20 hearing and wrote comments to Ecology regarding the mill cleanup had a more personal stake in the state’s cleanup agreement with GP.
“I request — demand — a public hearing regarding the cleanup of the Camas paper mill,” one Camas resident wrote to Ecology staff in March. “My father worked there for 45 years and recently retired. Three weeks ago, we learned he is dying from mesothelioma — a cancer that can show up 40 years later. It is directly contracted from exposure to asbestos. The mill was demolishing their relic furnaces alongside their workers without properly protecting them or informing them of the risk. Let’s not let this ruin our hometown again. Let’s not allow a preventable cancer (to) rob one more family of the time they deserve to be together.”
John Perkins spoke at the April 20 public hearing, and said he had spent 30 years working for paper mills, including the Camas mill, and was especially worried about possible dioxin contamination at the mill site.
“After many years of producing bleached wood pulp, the mill is likely to have many areas where dioxins are present,” Perkins said, referring to a group of toxic chemicals that can remain in the environment for generations and are known to disrupt hormones and lead to reproductive issues as well as cancer.
“If the city of Camas has to do cleanup of any part of the mill site now or in the future, the cost would likely exceed the value of the site,” Perkins added. “GP and Ecology must come up with a plan for cleanup of any levels of dioxins on the Camas mill site.”
Another concerned Camas resident said he had spent five years working on construction projects at the mill.
“I saw lots of black liquor eight or nine feet into the ground … that’s gotta be leaking into the (Camas Slough),” he told Ecology staff on April 20. “My question is, ‘Why can’t we clean that up now before the Koch brothers (Koch Industries owns GP) run out of money and say, ‘We’re broke and can’t afford to’?”
Yamazaki said the state wants to make sure it knows exactly where the contamination is on the mill site before beginning any type of in-depth cleanup.
“We have to have a good understanding of what is there, where it is and how much there is,” Yamazaki said, ‘or we may not get it all. That’s why the remedial investigation is so important. We want to do it right. We’ve got to make sure we do the steps in order or we’ll be left with more questions. We want to make sure we’re doing it fully and correctly.”
Ecology staff said they are open to hearing from former employees and others who may have more in-depth knowledge about possible contamination sites at the mill.
Ha Tran, an environmental engineer with Ecology, said she had received some calls about contamination buried at the mill site, but the callers were not able to provide any specific locations.
“If former employees do have that knowledge, they can submit it to Ecology, or call and let us know where (they) suspect the contamination might be,” Tran said.
Yamazaki added that Ecology is just beginning its remedial investigation of contamination at the mill site.
“Part of the (remedial investigation) is to figure out what and where we need to look,” he said. “Once we get there, we may need to ask, ‘Do we need to look (at other locations)?”
Many residents and public officials asked Ecology staff about the formation of a community advisory group that would weigh in on the state’s cleanup agreements with the GP mill.
Those types of groups are community driven, Yamazaki said, pointing the Camas residents toward the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s guidance on forming an advisory group.
Not having a community advisory group would not mean residents could not participate in Ecology’s cleanup work at the mill site, Yamazaki added, noting: “The public is always able to participate in the process” with an advisory group being something that could help funnel the public’s concerns into a more cohesive list of comments or questions.
“A formal group doesn’t create any special treatment under our rules,” DeMay added. “Ecology wants to engage with everyone who wants to participate.”
To learn more about Ecology’s cleanup work at the Camas mill site, visit tinyurl.com/b7ycfa5m.
‘You get one shot to do it right’ (April 1, 2021 Camas-Washougal Post-Record)