Camas-area residents eager to see environmental cleanup work being done at the Georgia-Pacific (GP) paper mill site will likely need to settle for “later rather than sooner.”
“The timing of these things vary greatly, but I think we all need to get into the mindset that it’s going to take a lot of time for this to happen,” Alan Hughes, a principal geologist with the Vancouver-based Maul Foster & Alongi consulting group, told members of a community advisory group formed to help guide public participation during the first stages of the state’s environmental cleanup plan for the historic downtown Camas paper mill, on Thursday, Jan. 13. “We are at the beginning stages … and it isn’t always linear.”
David Ripp, the executive director of the Port of Camas-Washougal, and one of three elected officials taking part in the newly formed community advisory group, asked Hughes if the consultants had a general timeline of the cleanup process.
“It could be done in two years, if not much contamination is present, or they can last decades,” Hughes said. “It’s hard to say. Also, because GP is still operating and there are areas that won’t be investigated, this is sort of an interim step.”
As soon as GP decides to stop operating in Camas – “in five years, 10 years, 100 years, whenever it is,” Hughes said – the company and the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) will complete the remainder of the environmental cleanup work at the Camas mill site.
“But there is opportunity there now for (Ecology and GP) to do quite a bit of work,” Hughes added.
In early 2021, after Ecology sent notice of its plan to work with GP to investigate and mitigate potential environmental contaminants on shuttered portions of the century-old mill site, Camas residents and officials urged Ecology staff to push for more restrictive environmental cleanup standards at the site, so that future Camas leaders might be able to rezone the prime downtown waterfront land and convert the site from heavy industrial to something such as mixed-use residential and commercial properties that would better suit the town’s thriving downtown commercial center.
Following a 2021 public hearing before Ecology, during which several Camas-Washougal officials urged more public participation in the state’s cleanup at the mill site, the state awarded the Downtown Camas Association (DCA) a $114,900 grant to hire consultants and form the citizen advisory group.
The DCA put out a call for advisory group applicants in November 2021. One month later, the DCA named eight community members – from a pool of 65 applicants – to sit on the 11-person advisory group.
The newly appointed community members – April Berlin, Marquita Call, Kalani Cox, Isaac Dizon, Randal Friedman, Mark Nickerson, Marty Snell and Steve Young – joined DCA Chairperson Caroline Mercury, Ripp, MFA consultants and Camas City Council members Tim Hein and Leslie Lewallen for the advisory group’s first official meeting on Jan. 13.
While Ecology and GP nail down the specifics and scope of the environmental cleanup, the advisory group will review technical materials, supervise the consultant group’s work and encourage public participation in the mill cleanup process.
The advisory group members plan to meet every month and develop a public participation plan that will not only update citizens on the work being done by GP and Ecology, but also to listen to the public’s concerns and comments about the environmental cleanup plan.
“This is a really important step for the future of the community,” Mercury said. “We really do want anyone and everyone to understand what’s happening as it happens and to have input. Now is the time to establish how (the mill site) is going to play out in the future. As we’ve said many times, GP is an important employer with 180 people with good-paying jobs and is a good tax revenue coming into the region … but (Ecology) is really the one that started the ball rolling. It was their decision to start (the environmental cleanup work) now, but it is a very long, complex process.”
Hughes explained that Ecology is reviewing GP’s Remedial Action plan right now. Once that plan is finalized, Hughes said, the state will require GP to move into the fieldwork part of the plan to test various spots for contamination that could be hazardous to the health of humans, wildlife or the environment.
The state and GP have already revealed several instances involving the leakage or release of toxic materials that have occurred at the Camas mill since 2011, including:
o 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;
oA release of weak black liquor in the old Kraft Mill basement in June 2014;
o The discovery of hazardous hydrocarbons in the soil near the mill’s wood yard in September 2015;
o A release of diesel into the Camas Slough in February 2017;
oThe discovery of fuel oil in soil near a decommissioned fuel oil tank in March 2018;
oThe spilling of approximately 154,000 gallons of black liquor on the mill property in April 2018; and
o The discoveries of petroleum contaminated soil in two different locations in August 2020; and in October 2020.
Members of the community advisory group will review the list of sites Ecology may require GP to investigate for contaminants, and will reach out to the community to see if citizens – perhaps those who worked at the mill or who knew of potential toxic material releases at the mill – have any feedback before Ecology OKs the scope of the environmental investigation.
The advisory group plans to update the public about the mill cleanup process every step of the way – online through the DCA’s website and social media channels; in-person at events like Camas Days and at the Camas Farmers Market; and, of course, during the DCA’s popular First Friday events.
“I think the challenge will be to keep people interested and engaged,” Mercury said. “I would hate for anyone to say they didn’t know what was happening.”
During their first meeting on Jan. 13, the advisory group members brainstormed what the mill site might offer Camas and its residents in the future, after GP has shuttered its final paper line.
“We need to be thinking big and bold and looking at all kinds of opportunities,” Ripp, with the Port, said. “So that, as the property redevelops, it’s adaptive over time.”
Advisory group member Mark Nickerson agreed.
“I think there is an opportunity for this site to enrich the Camas-Washougal communities,” he said. “Not to take away from the downtowns or the Port, but to do something that enriches the surrounding areas.”
Advisory group member Isaac Dizon added that it would also be important for the group and the city to remember how much of an impact the paper mill has had in shaping the city of Camas.
“This is where Camas started and why we’re all here,” Dizon said. “It’s important to keep in mind … the pride and connection to our past.”
Carrie Schulstad, the executive director of the DCA, said she hopes the public will view the community advisory group in a positive light.
“I hope that, when people look at the work this group has done, that they say we’ve been so thoughtful about connecting the downtown that’s here now with the downtown that will be developing in the future,” Schulstad told the advisory group members on Jan. 13. “And that people had a robust chance to be a part of that. And not only did they get that chance, but that brought the community together in a more powerful way.”
For more information about the community advisory group and its work guiding public participation during the state’s environmental cleanup at the GP paper mill in downtown Camas, visit downtowncamas.com/camaswamillinfo.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Feb. 3, 2022, to show the correct amount of grant money ($114,900) the Downtown Camas Association received from the state.