Camas mill closure the “canary in the coal mine”?

Camas mill closure the “canary in the coal mine”?
Atlanta-based company Georgia-Pacific has announced plans to close a pulp and paper mill in the city of Camas that has operated since 1883, depriving the area of 280-300 jobs. Although a company spokesperson attributes it to market conditions, industry leaders and a local state lawmaker view it as yet another victim of the state’s burdensome environmental regulations. Photo: nwlaborpress.org.

An Atlanta-based pulp and paper company announced this week its plans to close a Southwest Washington pulp mill that has operated since before Washington’s statehood. The news seemed ironically timed, just after state lawmakers gathered in Olympia to discuss Washington’s manufacturing industry’s decline in overall share of the workforce in recent years.

While company reps say the decision was based on a decline in market demand for paper products, some state lawmakers and industry leaders believe the state’s environmental regulations are playing a role in harming rural economies.

The mill has been a landmark feature of the city of Camas since it first began producing paper in 1883. Its entrenched status within the community is reflected by Camas High School’s mascot – the Papermakers.

In its announcement, George Pacific stated it plans to close pulp mill and paper production for printers and copiers next spring, which means a loss of 280-300 jobs. Its paper towel production will remain in operation.

Director of Public Affairs and Communications Kelly Ferguson told Lens that the closure is in response to a declining market. Nationally, demand for office-related paper products has declined by at least three percent.

“People don’t print things out,” he said. “They print things electronically. They sign things electronically. As a society, we use less printing and copy paper. That just equates to a decline in demand that just doesn’t make sense.”

However, others view the closure as yet another casualty of an onerous regulatory regime that is only getting worse. In a Facebook post, State Rep. Liz Pike (R-18) wrote: “WA State over-regulation is causing hundreds of jobs to be lost in Clark County.” She announced earlier this year she will run for the Clark County chair.

Pike also took aim at the Clean Air Rule enacted by Inslee via a 2015 executive order. The state Department of Ecology’s initial cost-benefit analysis  estimated the rule will cost the industry $210 million to $510 million over 20 years. This is despite the reduction of production-related fossil fuel emissions by 20 percent since 2004.

“FACT: Gov. Inslee’s new water and air standards are making it difficult for our manufacturing facilities to thrive,” Pike wrote. She told Lens that “we’re going to see people voting with their feet. (More) businesses are going to leave.”

On top of that, the federal Environmental Protection Agency last year imposed its own water quality standards on Washington, overriding a less stringent rule adopted by Ecology. Both environmental regulations are being challenged in court.

“We have the strictest environmental regulations in the nation,” she said. “We have clean air and clean water (already). The companies that are in Washington care about our environment the same way we do.”

It’s an opinion shared by Chris McCabe, executive director of Northwest Pulp and Paper Association. It’s not just Washington where mills are shutting their doors, he said. Last month, the 128-year-old West Linn mill in Portland, Ore. announced it was closing. In September, Graphic Packaging in Santa Barbara, Calif. announced the closure of its recycled paperboard mill.

“From my perspective, the signal that the West Coast states are sending pulp and paper in general is not a good signal,” he said. “From a manufacturer’s perspective… all of these new regulations add costs to the bottom line…and this affects Washington manufactures’ ability to compete not only with facilities overseas and with foreigner competitors but pulp and paper in other parts of the country that are in red states.”

On the surface, that observation seems to match the decision by Georgia-Pacific to shift its pulp operations another mill it operates in Port Hudson, Louisiana.

However, Ferguson said the mill there, acquired by the company, is more modern and has better equipment than the Camas mill.

When asked about how the state’s environmental regulations may have influenced the decision, he said that “for this particular decision” it was clearly due to the market. “Generally, if you would ask if industry manufacturing is burdened by regulations, I would have to acknowledge that, but I can’t necessarily equate around the decision that was made around this mill.”

He added: “We’ve been doing that assessment for some time, understanding how we’re competitive with this machine and the products from here in the marketplace, and only recently did we make the final decision that it didn’t make sense from an economic and a competitive standpoint.”

Yet, Washington’s policies aren’t helping struggling mills stay in operation, says McCabe. If they’re interested in reviving the manufacturing industry and helping rural economies, it’s something state lawmakers should consider this session, he added.

“Before they adopt new regulations, they need to look at the existing regulations…to see what impact that has on manufacturing,” he said. “Before passing any new regs, look at the ones that are already there and figure out if those are causing harm or not.”

Pike sees the move by Georgia-Pacific as a case of the straw breaking the camel’s back. “We don’t need to add more regulations. Camas is one of the most…sought after residential areas in Clark County, and it wouldn’t be that way if the paper mill was a stinky, smelly smokestack factory.”

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