Mill cleanup group sets sights on education, goes out for second grant

Community advisory group will host info booths at May First Friday, Camas Car Show

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Caroline Mercury (right), chair of the Citizen Advisory Group tasked with updating the public about the Georgia-Pacific paper mill cleanup, talks to community members at a downtown Camas event on May 22, 2022. (Contributed photo courtesy of the Downtown Camas Association)

Members of a community advisory group that acts as a conduit between the public and the ongoing environmental cleanup work at Georgia-Pacific paper mill in downtown Camas say they hope to receive a second public participation grant from the Washington State Department of Ecology.

If approved, the grant would help the group continue its mill-cleanup education and outreach efforts for an additional two years.

“There are a lot of questions that come up,” said Caroline Mercury, a retired mill employee and Downtown Camas Association board member who has helped lead the 11-member community advisory group since its inception in December 2021. “People want to know what’s going on at the site, when the cleanup is actually happening, what are these (contaminants) deep in the water and soil.”

The history of the advisory group started in early 2021, when Ecology notified Georgia-Pacific (GP) that it wanted to investigate and mitigate potential environmental contaminants on shuttered portions of the century-old mill site.

Soon, Camas residents and officials were urging Ecology staff to push for more restrictive environmental cleanup standards at the mill site. The hope was that, with more intensive cleanup standards, the heavy industrial site that occupies more than 600 acres in downtown Camas and on nearby Lady Island might someday — if GP ever decides to close its Camas operations and sell its property — be able to accommodate commercial or even mixed-used residential developments.

In 2021, the state awarded the Downtown Camas Association (DCA) a $114,900 grant to hire consultants and form the community advisory group (CAG).

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  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, Port of Camas-Washougal Director David Ripp,  consultants and Camas City Council liaisons Tim Hein and Leslie Lewallen for the advisory group’s first official meeting on Jan. 13, 2021.

While Ecology and GP nail down the specifics and scope of the environmental cleanup, the advisory group is charged with reviewing technical materials, supervising the consultant group’s work and encouraging public participation in the mill cleanup process.

Since then, CAG members have held regular meetings open to the public via Zoom, established an informational website about the mill cleanup process and set up informational booths during in-person events such as the Camas Farmer’s Market and the DCA’s annual plant and garden fair.

“We talked to about 900 visitors during those events and did a dot survey — with 220 people — to ask people, ‘What priorities would you like CAG to focus on?'” Mercury said.

The results from that initial survey showed people were interested in being kept up on the mill cleanup process, knowing more about the health and safety factor of chemicals and contaminants found at the mill site and having a better understanding of what might happen to the mill site, which is still owned by GP and still operating one paper products line.

Mercury and other members of the CAG have warned the cleanup process is not something that will happen overnight.

“It is a slow process,” Mercury said. “And we don’t necessarily know what the timeline will be.”

The former DCA president, who worked at the Camas paper mill for 38 years before retiring as a compliance officer in 2019, said in 2021, that the mill cleanup efforts are “a really important step for the future of the community.”

“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,” Mercury said in 2021. “As we’ve said many times, GP is an important employer with 180 people with good-paying jobs and good tax revenue coming into the region … but the state is really the one that started the ball rolling. It was their decision to start (the environmental cleanup work), and it is a very long, complex process.”

GP submitted its draft remedial work investigation plan to Ecology in 2022. The community as well as other stakeholders, including the Yakama Nation, also weighed in on the draft plan. Ecology then asked GP to work on aspects of the cleanup plan and turn it back into the state.

“So that’s what they’re doing now — filling in the gaps,” Mercury said of GP. “They will resubmit is as the final plan and, once Ecology says, ‘Yes, you’re good to move forward,’ they will (establish) a sampling plan to find out what’s actually there, through sampling.”

The CAG’s timeline shows Ecology and GP are expected to develop a cleanup action plan in 2023, and possibly begin the actual site cleanup work in 2024, but Mercury said there is no “hard date” for GP to turn in its final remedial work investigation plan for Ecology’s approval.

“Clearly, they want to move forward in a timely manner,” Mercury said, ‘but it is very complex. We’re talking about (more than) 600 acres, so that’s a complicated thing.”

The mill cleanup also may involve chemicals and contaminants that haven’t been used in the papermaking process for decades.

“We’re talking about a lot of the history of how paper was made,” Mercury told CAG members during the group’s March meeting. “Part of the story is how these historical practices are not typical today … and that some of the sins of the past need to be dealt with now.”

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:

  • 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.

“People are interested in what might be deep in the water or in the soil,” Mercury said.

As they head into what they hope will be the group’s second round of grant funding, CAG members said this month that they would like to dig even deeper into what chemicals are used in the creation of paper — both today and in the past — and those chemicals’ possible health and environmental impacts.

“It would be nice to describe what’s happening now and to share that a lot of what we’re concerned about happened in the past,” DCA Director Carrie Schustad said. “I love the idea of having this be the education phase.”

CAG members will host informational booths during two upcoming DCA events in downtown Camas, including: the May 5 First Friday and the Camas Car Show on June 24.

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Editor’s note: This article was updated at 11:30 a.m. Monday, April 10, 2023, to reflect the correct total ($114,900) of the state grant awarded to the Downtown Camas Association (DCA).