Removing 4 million gallons of caustic chemicals a top priority
The Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District board, after nearly a year of negotiations, has decided to go through with the acquisition of the former Samoa pulp mill site.
The district’s Board of Commissioners voted unanimously, with Aaron Newman absent, during a special session meeting Monday evening to take over the 72-acre industrial site from Freshwater Tissue Co., which closed the mill in October 2008.
Under the agreement, the district will acquire the property — which includes 225,000 square feet of buildings, a boiler, a water treatment plant and a 1.5 mile ocean outfall line — at no cost.
Although harbor district officials expressed excitement Monday about potential projects that could be developed at the site — including a public docking facility, commercial aquaculture and a Humboldt State University research facility — the acquisition is not without challenges for the cash-strapped district.
For one thing, harbor officials will need to figure out what to do with the roughly 4 million gallons of pulping liquors — a caustic byproduct of the pulping process — currently stored in tanks at the site. The cost of removing the materials, according to Commissioner Mike Wilson, has been estimated at around $2 million.
That’s money that the harbor district does not have readily available. After years in the red, the agency has eaten away at its reserve funds. Debt from dredging Humboldt Bay in 2000, combined with lost revenue from disappearing timber companies and the closure of the Simpson pulp mill in 2008, saw the district’s reserve funds plummet from $6 million in 2006 to just over $2 million in 2010.
In addition to another round of dredging — which District CEO Jack Crider has said will likely need to happen in about four years given the rate at which silt sediment is piling up in the bay— the district also needs to start thinking about replacing more than 50,000-square-feet of marina floats that make up the harbor dock.
District officials are hoping a transformation of the former mill site could turn their financial situation around.
In the meantime, Wilson said the district is looking at pulp mills outside the area that could receive the pulping liquors as well as possible treatment options.
Pacific Coast Seafoods, owned by Commissioner Greg Dale, has offered a letter of credit to the district for a loan in the amount of $1.25 million — at 3 percent interest — to help kickstart the removal process.
“We feel that the pulp liquors are a big issue,” Dale said. “As oyster farmers, a potential leak into the bay could ruin our business. The district has the funds to pay for the removal — but not all at once. It could drag out for years. Now the district can approach other agencies with some funding ready to go.” While all of the commissioners present at Monday’s meeting agreed that coming up with a means to dispose of the liquors won’t be easy, they also agreed that it was a task worth taking on.
“That pulp liquor situation, it’s grave,” Dale said. “But I don’t see anyone else stepping up to fix it or take care of it. I think we have the opportunity and the obligation to do so.” Commissioner Richard Marks, who worked for nearly three decades at the facility, agreed.
“If we do nothing else but clean up that, I am going to be happy,” he said.
During Monday’s meeting, concern was raised over taxpayer liability should a tank rupture and a leak occur before the district is able to remove the chemicals from the site. Crider said the district is in the process of obtaining catastrophic insurance coverage should such an event occur.
“Right now, getting those liquors offsite is our number one priority,” he said.
Although the district has agreed to purchase the site, Commissioner Pat Higgins stressed that the project is far from complete. In addition to finding the funding sources necessary to remove the liquors, the district will also be starting the process of finding occupants to fill the property. Higgins said the district will begin holding economic development committee hearings on that topic on the second Monday of each month going forward.
“There will be plenty of opportunity for the community to engage in that forum, in terms of potential use for this site,” Higgins said. “This is going to be a long, ongoing relationship with the harbor district and the community. The plans will only continue to evolve as the capital forms and we get feedback from the public.”