Public officials see pulp mill site up close Friday
Public officials toured the Samoa pulp mill on Friday, seeing firsthand an abandoned industrial site reminiscent of a ghost town that is rife with potential despite its lurking environmental dangers.
Humboldt Bay Harbor, Conservation and Recreation District CEO Jack Crider led the tour, which included a pair of Humboldt County supervisors, a few harbor commissioners and representatives of the Headwaters Fund board. Walking the group of about 15 people through the 72-acre property, Crider showcased the good, the bad and the ugly -- explaining the problems that pushed the United States Environmental Protection Agency to initiate an emergency response and the vast potential the district sees in the site.
Crider led the tour out onto the shipping dock and through cavernous, sprawling industrial spaces, pointing out tanks storing caustic liquids and chemical-laden blue barrels with EPA stickers on them along the way.
The biggest concern is that a large earthquake could destroy the tanks, causing millions of gallons of caustic liquids to run into Humboldt Bay. A large-scale spill wouldn't carry major risks to human life, but could have devastating impacts on the bay's ecosystem and booming aquaculture industry.
The mill has sat dormant for more than five years, since Evergreen Pulp shut it down in October 2008, essentially shuttering the buildings without notice in the dead of night and putting 200 people out of work. Freshwater Tissue purchased the mill in February 2009, but plans for a pulp-and-tissue paper facility were never realized.
The harbor district acquired the site in August with the aim of transforming the mill into the National Marine Research and Innovation Park, a mixed-use space with aquaculture hatcheries, an aquaponics greenhouse, renewable energy research labs, a public shipping dock and educational facilities.
Aquaculture hatcheries are the first part of that plan coming to fruition. Taylor Mariculture is planning to open a large oyster nursery at the site and lease part of the old mill facility, according to Crider.
Crider said there are real challenges, which is why the district refused to pay to acquire the site from Freshwater. Harbor commissioners Greg Dale and Richard Marks also said Friday that the district took over the mill in part because of environmental concerns and the possibility they would grow while the site was inactive.
The largest concerns swirl around the 4 million gallons of pulping liquors left at the site, much of which was stored in failing tanks. The liquors -- which have a pH of higher than 13 -- are a caustic byproduct of the pulping process.
Crider said closing mills generally wind production down, burning off most of the pulping liquors but leaving a small amount of concentrated, highly valuable liquors on the site. The Samoa mill closure happened quickly, and large amounts of the liquors were left, some of them in roofless tanks that allowed rainwater to mix with the liquors, diluting them and increasing the overall volume of caustic materials.
Concerned with the liquors and how they were being stored, Dale asked the EPA to inspect the site shortly after it was acquired by the district. EPA federal on-scene coordinator Steve Calanog was immediately alarmed at the condition of the facility and its proximity to Humboldt Bay.
He initiated an emergency response action, federalizing the site under EPA's control.
EPA and U.S. Coast Guard crews worked to relieve the pressure on some of the worst tanks, bringing in temporary storage containers to hold the liquors.
”EPA has basically stabilized the site,” Crider said Friday. “The site is actually a lot safer now than it was a couple of months ago.”
Under EPA's emergency response, the district plans on piping the liquors out to a shipping barge, which will transport them to a mill in Longview, Wash., that plans to reuse the liquors. The effort will likely involve three barge loads of the caustic substance, the first of which is tentatively scheduled for January.
The effort will prove expensive. Each barge shipment costs about $400,000, according to Crider, and the district plans to cover the expenses by selling off parts from the old mill.
The EPA's response will include getting all the liquors off-site and destroying the old tanks. Even after that's complete, the site has some other hurdles, such as ground contaminants, including possible dioxin, left behind by Louisiana Pacific. Crider said soil sample tests are currently underway to determine the extent of the brownfield cleanup. The good news, he said, is that Louisiana Pacific has so far taken responsibility for the site.
”They've been very responsive,” he said.