Public will have chance to weigh in on Georgia-Pacific paper mill cleanup

Downtown Camas Association will accept applications for community advisory group through Dec. 6; state wants to know 'what, where and how much' contamination is at downtown Camas mill site

Seven months after at least 50 Camas residents and public officials urged the state’s Department of Ecology during an April 20 public hearing to push for more restrictive environmental cleanup standards at the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in downtown Camas, the public will soon be able to weigh in on the mill’s future environmental cleanup efforts.

“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,” Carrie Schulstad, executive director of the Downtown Camas Association (DCA) said. “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.”

The DCA is accepting applications through Dec. 6, from community members interested in serving on a community advisory group that will guide public participation during the mill’s cleanup process.

“The advisory group will be a big part of helping us reach all corners of the community and provide strong, informed feedback to Ecology as they investigate and plan for cleanup,” Schulstad said.

The advisory group will supervise the DCA’s public involvement consultant’s work; encourage public participation in the cleanup process; review technical materials; respond to Ecology and GP regarding the cleanup process and findings of the investigation into potentially harmful chemicals at the mill site. Advisory group members are expected to meet every other month December 2021 through the summer of 2023, according to the DCA.

Camas residents and officials began weighing in on the cleanup process in the spring of 2021, after Ecology issued a draft of an agreed order for future hazardous material cleanup at the Camas paper mill.

At a virtual public hearing with Ecology held April 20, residents said state officials should consider future, non-heavy industrial uses for the 135-year-old mill site when issuing environmental cleanup orders.

“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 on April 20. “Any cleanup of the mill should really consider the most likely reuse of that property and it is likely to be mixed-use. 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.”

Several Camas city officials, including City Councilwoman Bonnie Carter and Camas’ interim mayor Ellen Burton, agreed.

“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,” Burton told Ecology staff during the April 20 public hearing. “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.”

Shingo Yamazaki, the Ecology site manager, has explained that the state wants to understand “what, where and how much” contamination is at the mill site during this first stage of investigation.

Ecology staff already knows the GP mill site at 401 N.E. Adams St., in downtown Camas, 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 at the April 20 meeting. “It’s a large site, and we want to be very thoughtful and deliberate with our approach.”

Ecology finalized an agreed order for cleanup actions at the GP mill in August. The state’s order requires the mill to investigate contamination on the site and potentially perform interim cleanup efforts.

“Due to the ongoing operations at the site, specific areas may be inaccessible and not allow for complete investigation/characterization/cleanup actions to occur at this time,” Ecology stated in its April 12 Agreed Order. “The cleanup actions … shall be deferred for such locations until they become accessible.”

The Ecology order requires 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 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. 

Ecology also heard from members of the public who were aware of possible contamination events at the site over the years and added a list of those “historic and significant releases” to the Agreed Order. The list includes 39 events dating back to 1997, including: 

  • 50 gallons of spilled sodium carbonate — “green liquor” — that leaked onto some rocks in 1997; 
  • A report from Dec. 26, 1999 of between 1 million and 2.2 million gallons of effluent that had leaked directly into the Camas Slough; 
  • A report of 50 gallons of “black liquor” spilling into the ground in July 2000;
  • A wastewater discharge in August 2001 that spilled between 200 and 300 gallons of water mixed with “black liquor” into the ground; 
  • The release of over 800 pounds of sodium dichromate into the Columbia River in February 2002;
  • A report of a cracked tank leaking sodium hydroxide into the ground for an unknown amount of time in June 2011;
  • A report of “black liquor” containing sodium hydroxide leaking from a drain to groundwater in September 2012; 
  • A mixture of water and sulfuric acid overflowing on Lady Island in October 2015; and
  • Most recently, an unknown “black sludgy material” coming from the ground that had leaked through a small hole in a containment area under a sewer pipe, found to be “legacy contamination from an old site from the 1800s” in May 2017. 

The state’s Agreed Order with GP also includes a public participation plan, and stipulates that GP will need to be present at meetings and available to answer the public’s questions at the request of Ecology. 

One of the first steps in the public participation plan is the formation of the community advisory group.
The DCA will take applications for the advisory group through Dec. 6, and the group will meet for the first time in December.

Ecology is expected to provide a draft Remedial Investigation Work Plan for public review and comment in January 2022. The community advisory group will submit comments to Ecology in the spring of 2022, and the state will likely finalize its remedial work plan in the summer of 2022, with a cleanup action plan expected in 2023 and site cleanup scheduled to begin in 2024.

To learn more about the cleanup process at the Camas paper mill, visit bit.ly/3l0qfqz. To be considered for an appointment to the community advisory committee, fill out an application online at bit.ly/2ZfboAJ