Harbor District gets pulp mill site

The county’s Harbor District is acquiring the former pulp mill property on Humboldt Bay at no cost but is also taking on the considerable responsibility of removing its hazardous materials.

There are four million gallons of caustic chemicals from pulp mill processes stored at the 72-acre mill site. Removing them along with a variety of solid waste is estimated to cost $3 million.

But the district’s Board of Commissioners was upbeat about the mill site’s revenue generation potential when it unanimously approved a mill transfer agreement at an Aug. 12 special meeting.

The mill site presents a mix of liabilities and assets. It has an ocean outfall and infrastructure that can accommodate a variety of proposed uses, including an aquaculture and research facility, water export, alternative energy manufacturing and a shipping dock.

Commissioners described the district as an appropriate agency to take on the expensive but important task of ridding the site of stored chemicals that could spill into the bay if an earthquake occurs.

The Coast Seafoods company, which is managed by Commissioner Greg Dale and farms oysters in bay waters, has pledged a $1.25 million loan for the clean-up.

The history of the site includes legal actions that resulted in chlorine-free pulp processing and owners that ranged from industrial timber companies to Chinese investors accused of leaving the country after squeezing the mill’s assets.

The most recent owner, Freshwater Tissue Company, failed to get federal stimulus money to fund its plan for eco-groovy toilet tissue manufacturing and the mill closed in 2009.

District Commissioner Pat Higgins said gaining control of the mill is a means of disaster prevention. “Without our intervention and initiative, the threat of pollution to Humboldt Bay posed by the pulp mill is very grave and not likely to be remediated,” he said.

Higgins added that no buyers for the mill property have materialized in several years and “it’s become apparent that we’re in a unique position” to resolve blight and generate revenue from leases for businesses.

Commissioner Richard Marks gained a reputation as a local labor leader during his nearly 30-year stint as a mill worker and he emphasized that the mill’s glum situation wasn’t created by Freshwater Tissue.

It was the China-based Lee and Man company that “didn’t do business correctly and so they left us with an environmental issue,” he said. “They purchased the pulp mill and then  ran off with the assets and left the workers without their severance pay and their wage packages.”

Marks said the district has a responsibility to “help protect the bay and of course our ocean.”

District Board Chairman Mike Wilson said the district’s been “pleasantly surprised” by the support of other public agencies. He likened the upcoming clean-up to the one he worked on as a consultant when the Wiyot Tribe purchased the northern portion of Indian Island.

That area is highly contaminated but a clean-up is proceeding, Wilson continued.

During a public comment session, representatives of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District and Humboldt State University offered support for the district’s plans.

Others asked questions about the liability issues and District Attorney Paul Brisso said the district will be assuming Freshwater Tissue’s liabilities but not those of former mill owner Louisiana-Pacific.