PORT ANGELES — Tuesday marks the 20th anniversary of the Rayonier Inc. pulp mill’s demise, the death of what was Clallam County’s largest employer, the final work whistle for the plant’s 365 employees.
The 75-acre parcel 2 miles east of downtown on Port Angeles Harbor has lain dormant since Feb. 28, 1997, awaiting final cleanup of harbor waters, which state Department of Ecology Southwest Region Manager Rebecca Lawson said Friday might not be completed until 2026.
Cleanup responsibilites for the site switched to Rayonier Advanced Materials Inc. (Rayonier AM) in 2014 when it split off from Rayonier Inc.
All Rayonier Inc. wood treating and pulp mill sites, including the Port Angeles site, were transferred to Rayonier AM.
The closure slashed an estimated $1.4 million from the city general fund in sales, utility and property taxes in 1997 and the same amount in 1998, then-City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said.
But many former Rayonier employees quickly found jobs and moved on, two of them said last week.
Deb Reed, 62, a Port Angeles native, was at Rayonier 14 years before the closure, when she lost her job as a cost analyst.
She was on vacation when her mother, tearful, called her and her husband, Dean, by then a former engineering manager at Rayonier, to tell them the news.
“It was a shock,” Reed recalled last week. “I wanted to retire from Rayonier.”
But Reed became a software consultant within three months of the closure.
“It gave me the opportunity to completely reinvent myself and try something totally different, and I really enjoyed it,” she said.
A short cleanup estimate
In 2000, Laurie Davies, then program manager of Ecology’s solid waste division, which initially took over Rayonier cleanup oversight for the agency, estimated cleanup would take four to six years.
That compares to the Environmental Protection Agency’s average of seven years for cleanup as a low-level Superfund site, Matt Beirne, the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe’s environmental coordinator for natural resources, said last week.
During the first seven years of cleanup under Ecology’s solid waste division — until the cleanup was switched to the agency’s toxic cleanup division — there was only one Ecology staff person assigned to the project, Beirne said.
“For the first six or seven years, there was really kind of floundering that caused a lot of the delay, I would say,” Beirne recalled.
“Since that time, Ecology has put a good team together,” Beirne said. As for Rayonier AM, “their buzzwords are clarity, certainty and finality.”
EPA officials were not available for comment Friday on the cleanup.
Gary Locke, Washington governor from 1997-2005, helped convince the EPA to hand off the cleanup project to Ecology in 2000 under a three-party deferral agreement that included Ecology, the EPA and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, whose village of Y’innis was located at the Rayonier AM site in the 1800s.
In 2000, community leaders were worried about an EPA Superfund stigma settling over Port Angeles’ future and the time it would take to make the Port Angeles Harbor property useful again as one of the largest available industrial development sites on the West Coast.
“Certainly, the state process is a lot more flexible,” Locke, now a senior adviser for Davis Wright Tremaine of Seattle, said Friday.
“Under federal Superfund cleanup, it’s much more exacting and demanding,” he added.
Lawson called 2026 “a reasonable estimate or goal” for completing the cleanup.
In July 2015, she told the Peninsula Daily News that 2020 was a reasonable date.
“It will definitely not be cleaned up by 2020,” she said Friday.
Pocketed with pollution
The Rayonier AM property, largely covered by cement slabs, was pocketed with PCBs, dioxins and other toxic substances that also have contaminated sediment in the 1,325 acres of eastern harbor that the company is responsible for cleaning up. The Rayonier mill there was started in 1930.
New sediment management standards came out in 2013, Lawson said Friday, that are being applied for the first time on the cleanup.
“Ecology and Rayonier had to take quite a bit of time to noodle through those new regulations and figure out how it applied,” she said.
“Looking back now, when we initiated the agreed order we are under now, there is no way they could have been done in four years.
“I don’t think we really appreciated how long it was going to take.”
Rayonier AM spokesman Ryan Houck said earlier this month that Rayonier AM, which is paying for the cleanup, is not marketing the property and could not say when that might change.
“Ecology is setting the timetable and we’re following their lead,” Houck said in an email.
The parcel is valued at $4.56 million, according to the Clallam County Assessor’s Office.
How much for cleanup?
In a 2011 interview, Carla Yetter, Rayonier’s then-corporate director of environmental affairs, told the PDN that the overall cleanup effort had cost the company $26 million.
Houck said Friday he did not have a current total on what the company has spent on cleanup.
By 2011, Rayonier had trucked off about 90 percent of the contaminated soil at the site, company officials said.
The parcel, which lies on the eastern edge of Port Angeles Harbor, skirts a deep-water port capable of anchoring 1,200-foot vessels.
“It’s ridiculous, the whole process is ridiculous,” Mayor Patrick Downie said Friday.
“This is a great piece of property that could be an enormous piece of property for the economy, for the multi-use activity that could have been done on that property that has not happened yet.
“It’s a social blow to this community.”
Ideas for development
Ideas floated for the parcel have included California developer Jerry Ward’s $120 million, 322-unit condominium complex in 2003 that included a water-themed amusement park, a waterfront retail center and a decommissioned Navy aircraft carrier as a museum.
They have included a “Salish Village”concept put forward in 2010 by Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Chairman Ron Allen that would have included commercial, light industrial, residential and cultural facilities along with lodging, retail, convention and park uses.
Harbor-Works, a public development agency, was formed in 2008 with $1.3 million in seed-money loans from the city of Port Angeles and Port of Port Angeles to expedite the environmental cleanup of the property and kick start its redevelopment.
It failed in 2010 after Rayonier refused to negotiate with Harbor-Works on the agency purchasing the property.
Two Y’innis village burial sites lie west of Ennis Creek under the concrete-covered mill site and east of Ennis Creek in the area of the Olympic Discovery Trail.
“Right now, as we have said to all the agencies, is that as far as the development, it is way too early to go into the development concept of it until the cleanup phase of it is complete,” Frances Charles, Lower Elwha Klallam tribal chairwoman said Friday.
“We were wishing things could have been done a lot sooner and will continue to monitor and continue to do protection not only of the natural resources and restoration aspect of it but we will definitely be involved in decisions in the cleanup stages and do the protection of our cultural values of what our village is down there.”
The company has a long history of polluting the harbor.
The EPA rated then-ITT-Rayonier as the state’s top industrial polluter for 1993 with more than 3.6 million pounds of air and water discharges, including 2.2 million pounds of discharges into Port Angeles Harbor.
Lawson said a cleanup study, which will evaluate remaining soil and marine sediment contamination and cleanup options that Rayonier AM must address, should be completed by the end of 2017 and available for public comment.
She said marine sediment options could include dredging the harbor or capping the sediment with a thick layer of sand.
Grant Munro of Port Angeles, a timber and log broker and Deb Reed’s cousin, was Rayonier plant manager from 1987-89 and a Port Angeles City Council member from 2004-08.
There were about 420 employees when Munro headed the mill, 55 more than when it shut down.
Rayonier pulp was used to manufacture cigarette filters, plastic toothbrush and screwdriver handles, photographic film and high-end fabric for clothing.
“The key ingredient for the Rayonier mill was wood chips, and wood chips were getting very hard to get,” Munro said.
“With the environmental restrictions, it was hard to get the volume and the price was very high.”
Fred Williams, 63, who worked at Rayonier with his wife, Cheryl, as a welder when the mill closed, started at Rayonier in 1972 right after he graduated from Port Angeles High School.
Williams’ father, two brothers, uncle, cousin and sister also worked there, he said Friday.
“It was kind of a family mill back in the day,” he said.
Williams said most of the employees he knew found jobs at Boeing, truck driving, at Daishowa Paper on Ediz Hook — now Nippon Paper Industries USA — like he did or some other field.
“You move on,” said Williams, still employed by Nippon.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].