The site of the former Rayonier mill in Port Angeles, shown on Tuesday, awaits completion of environmental cleanup almost 27 years after the last roll of pulp rolled off the line. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

The site of the former Rayonier mill in Port Angeles, shown on Tuesday, awaits completion of environmental cleanup almost 27 years after the last roll of pulp rolled off the line. (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

Cleanup at Rayonier site still years away

Action plan to be approved in 2024-25

PORT ANGELES — The yearslong cleanup process at the old Rayonier mill site on the Port Angeles waterfront is moving forward but is likely at least another eight years from being completed.

State Department of Ecology representatives told the Port Angeles Business Association on Tuesday that an interim action plan for the site has recently been revised. They sent the plan to Rayonier Advanced Materials Inc.

“They are reviewing it and we are beginning negotiations with them on an implementing agreement,” said Marian Abbett, project manager for the Rayonier mill site.

“We will then take out that implementing agreement and the interim action plan for public comment.”

That should occur late this year or in early 2025, Abbett said, with the finalization of the interim action plan and legal agreement taking place in mid-2025.

Once that happens, actual cleanup efforts at the site can begin.

That is expected to cost more than $30 million — paid entirely by Rayonier Advanced Materials Inc. — and take “about seven years,” according to DOE.

The Rayonier mill operated from 1930-1997 and was the city’s largest employer for many years with up to 365 employees.

Until the 1970s, the mill discharged untreated wastewater into Port Angeles Harbor, Abbett said, and log processing at the site left behind high levels of dioxins, carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or cPAHs, polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and metals.

The cleanup effort at the site already has taken nearly two decades, having first started under Ecology in 2000. In 2007, Rebecca Lawson, Ecology’s longtime regional manager for its Toxic Cleanup Program, took over. She said she understood the community’s frustration but noted several things could cause delays in the process.

“Delays can be on both sides. We’ll be having conversations, we think we’re on the same page and then it turns out we’re not. It’s really challenging, especially given such a huge complex project,” Lawson said. “There’s new information that comes up, there’s nuances with regulatory interpretations and it draws out the process.”

One of the issues that had arisen was reaching an agreement with Rayonier about the exact area to be cleaned. DOE’s current plans have cleanup taking place inside a 1,400-acre parcel known as the study area — most of which is the underwater marine environment — but that does not include the entirety of the contaminated area.

Rayonier was not the only polluter in the area, Lawson said, and that can make cleanup efforts challenging from a legal perspective.

But with the actual cleanup area designated, the department was able to develop the action plan that will go out for public comment, hopefully later this year, she said.

The department has detected elevated — though not dangerously so, Lawson said — levels of contaminants in the soil in the Port Angeles area believed to be spread through air emissions from local mills. There are currently 10 DOE cleanup sites in Port Angeles, Abbett said.

Under the proposed action plan, contamination would be consolidated into the west portion of the mill site and placed under a 2-foot level of clean soil, a process known as capping.

Abbett said many public comments from community members in the past aimed to see all the contaminated soil removed from the site, but that would be too costly.

Full removal “is a permanent remedy, but it is a costly remedy,” Abbett said.

“Under our state cleanup authority — which is the Model Toxics Control Act — we are to select the remedy that is permanent to the maximum extent practicable,” she said. “The remedy that we selected has a high benefit score and permanence, and to do more, the cost is substantially disproportionate.”

Once completed, development will be able to occur on most of the site without any institutional controls —agreements with DOE about contamination at the site — even on top of where contaminated soil has been capped.

“We will require institutional controls to protect the cap, but that does not prevent future use of that area,” Abbett said. “Development can take place on top of a cap, but you have to be careful about how you want to design that cap to meet that need.”

In 2019, DOE estimated the project would cost about $27 million, but Lawson noted that figure would surely have risen due to costs and inflation.

Rayonier — which is based in Jacksonville, Fla. — is financially responsible for the entire cleanup project, even after the current work is completed. The company did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Once the remediation plan is accepted, the cleanup process will take several years, Abbett said. Cleanup at the site will involve moving or removing large amounts of sediment which can only take place during the construction season. Work in the marine environment has to pause for fish breeding.

Despite the long process, Lawson said the department was finally at a point where there were plans for final cleanups at the site.

“We have a cleanup plan and we have been clear with Rayonier, we want them to move forward with this, we want them to make a legal commitment to implement the whole thing,” Lawson said. “If they don’t do that, we’re laying a foundation where we could consider other options.”

Lawson said the department hoped to work with the company on the plan and that court orders and litigation were a last resort. Litigation, Lawson noted, could potentially lengthen the cleanup effort even further.

Rayonier is required to create a master schedule under the interim action plan, Lawson said, which is something the Department of Ecology would be able to hold the company to.

“We have been doing a good job of documenting what’s been going on since they submitted their draft,” Lawson said. “We have been laying a good fact base where if we can’t get them to agree — by the end of this year, I think is a reasonable time frame to enter into a legal agreement — then I think our agency will consider a unilateral order.”

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Reporter Peter Segall can be reached at peter.segall@peninsuladailynews.com.

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