County gets EPA grant for mill site cleanup

Sean C. Morgan

Linn County has received a $350,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct an environmental assessment of the former Willamette Industries-Weyerhaeuser mill property in Sweet Home.

The property includes 166 acres between 18th Avenue and Clark Mill Road north of the railroad track. The land, along with 241 acres of former Morse Bros.-Knife River land, was last owned by Western States Land Reliance Trust.

The county foreclosed the property for nonpayment of property taxes at the end of 2010. The property was part of a master plan that included commercial and residential development.

Commissioner Roger Nyquist said there had been two or three previous attempts to procure the grant.

“This was not our first application. Getting a grant puts us on track to get problems identified in the next couple of years.

“The county’s goal is very clear. We want that property cleaned up and utilized to improve the economy in Sweet Home. This is the first step in that process.”

The grant will fund a study to identify environmental problems on the property, Nyquist said. Afterward, the commissioners can figure out what it will cost to clean it up.

He didn’t want to speculate about what kind of problems the study will find, he said, but on a wild guess, cleanup could cost millions.

The good news with the grant, Nyquist said, is that “the EPA becomes invested in working this through completion. It’s more likely they’ll make a grant when it comes to cleanup.”

Since the foreclosure, Knife River has assisted Linn County in cleaning up its portion of the property. The county is working with the Sweet Home Economic Development Group to develop a park and events center on that portion of the property.

“Knife River has done a great job,” Nyquist said. “They’ve been a great citizen and partner. We’re awaiting DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) to sign off on the work.”

Just one area remains for cleanup, Nyquist said. That’s an area where there was a fuel tank and diesel storage.

The property had been owned by Morse Bros., Nyquist said. Knife River purchased Morse Bros., and it has stepped up and taken responsibility for cleaning up the property.

Weyerhaeuser’s response has been the 180-degree opposite, Nyquist said. The county and Weyerhaeuser are communicating through lawyers.

“This, thankfully, sidesteps that issue for now,” Nyquist said.