County seeks grant funding for Weyerhaeuser site cleanup

Audrey Caro Gomez

Linn County has taken another step in cleaning up the remains of the former Weyerhaeuser and Willamette Industries planer mill that was destroyed in a fire last Halloween.

At the Sept. 20 Linn County Board of Commissioners meeting, commissioners approved applications for two grants that would help fund the clean up.

“This summer we’ve been searching for funding to deal with the burned building at the mill site,” Russ Williams, director of Linn County General Services, told the board. “There is a forgivable portion of a loan that the Oregon Department of Business can give us.”

Williams said the county needs to deal with the building because it is on the ground and it has a tendency to spread with rain and they do not want to contaminate the site.

“It’s going to cost us about $200,000,” Williams said. “They usually give about a third, so we’re hoping to get $60,000 from the Department of Business to help us fund this.”

Officials also have to look at how they are going to deal with the other buildings on the property, including time frame and how they would come up with the additional funding, he added.

“So this is the beginning of a conversation,” Williams said.

Commissioner John Lindsey asked if they had to remove the other buildings.

“We have buyers that are interested in the lumber,” Williams said.

The standing buildings are at risk of vandalism and another fire, he said.

“The other potential that’s a problem is those are rolled tar roofs with asbestos in the tar,” he said. “As those are exposed to the UV sunlight, the roof structure starts to break down and then the non-friable asbestos would become friable,” Williams said.

Only DEQ-licensed asbestos abatement contractors and certified asbestos workers can remove and dispose of friable asbestos, according to the Department of Environmental Quality’s website.

Lindsey asked about auctioning or selling the buildings off, leaving the responsibility of cleanup to the new owner.

“We actually went down that path already,” Williams said.

One of the concerns they had with that method is the potential involvement of someone, such as the former owner of the site, Daniel Desler.

The county foreclosed on the property, a total of 380 acres, for nonpayment of property taxes for six years. Western States Land Reliance Trust owned the property and owed approximately $505,000 in taxes. The mill property included 153 acres.

Prior to foreclosure, Desler was indicted for air pollution for demolishing buildings and removing asbestos-containing debris from the site. He reached a plea agreement in the case. A half-demolished structure remains near the burned building.

“The risk is not to contaminate the site with this work so we feel like we’d have better control if we managed the asbestos plan and then have them bid the buildings out once the asbestos is done,” Williams said.

Cleaning up the burned building is not an option, Williams said. And they have the funds to do that.

“On the other ones, I’m not sure what the future holds,” Williams said. “We have people that are interested in the lumber and one guy came to us and said, ‘Apple’s building this billion dollar campus in the bay area and using recycled lumber.’”

The plan is to deal with the buildings and then hopefully sell them.

“I guess my concern with that property is always environmental first,” said Commissioner Roger Nyquist. “They poisoned the place while they were there and it’s our responsibility.”

Williams said that is a shared concern.

They are using Portland-based PBS Engineering to remove the asbestos.

“We’re going to spend about $19,000 just for them to keep on track of this job,” Williams said. “(To) make sure we don’t contaminate the site.”

Nyquist asked for an update on the process started with the DEQ two years ago.

Rick Partipilo, program manager for Linn County Environmental Health, said the initial sampling has been completed.

“Those tests are in the lab or on the way back,” Partipilo said. “They were taken over a two-week period, so we should be getting the results back shortly.”

They anticipate a couple of hot spots where they will need to do a second round of more focused testing, he said. A more final report should be ready sometime in early 2017.

“It’s the potential environmental exposure that scares the heck out of me,” Nyquist said.

“We’re all going to be in this together in the sense that once we get the grant in, they’ll come back with a proposal and you’ll have to look a the proposal and approve it,” Williams responded.

He said there will be multiple times his department will be in touch with the board of the commissioners on this issue.

Lindsey suggested there could be another option.

“Roger, just relax, we’re talking about Sweet Home, and I know four other commercial buildings in Sweet Home, because the way the EPA draws this up is there is a loop in the law; it’s called encapsulation, and they have actually built, physically, roofs over the other roofs on these buildings and you’ll never tell walking by,” he said. “If you actually went up there and went through a hole, you’d find a one-foot chamber in there because of the issues of removing the roof. And that is all legal.”

“You tell this to make me feel better?” Nyquist asked.

“There’s a way around everything,” Lindsey responded.

Williams said his department will be dealing more with the city of Sweet Home regarding the mill site, since it is within city limits.

“We started on the grant, the EPA grant, that we want to submit next year,” Williams said. “We’re going to meet monthly with the city of Sweet Home. I’ve already talked to them already about development.”

He said it is important that Sweet Home is a partner with the county and it is important to consider how plans with the mill coordinate with the city’s interests.

“I’m a little disappointed in the fact that that asbestos survey that they did already shows there’s asbestos in another part of the property in the ground, 4 percent,” Williams said. “So independent of anything we’ve done, there are spots that the EPA didn’t clean up. So that’s going to be a conversation.”

Nyquist asked for clarification on the contaminated area.

“There’s still a couple of spots on the site that have a high concentration,” Williams said. “High concentration, when you talk about asbestos, is small. Where that came from, I don’t know. They were supposed to clean up the site.”