Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Sixty years later, a prediction comes true . . . sort of.
This is fascinating: Metro is considering bidding for the recently-closed Blue Heron paper mill site in Oregon City at the base of Willamette Falls. It would be great to have public access to this part of the river.
On another note, it appears that mill officials might have been correct when they predicted in 1949 that more stringent Willamette River water quality standards would run them out of business. However, does it count that the prediction was sixty years in coming to fruition, or that more stringent water quality standards do not entirely explain the demise of the mill?
The Blue Heron Mill's former owners, the Publishers' Paper Company, threatened Oregon State Sanitary Authority (OSSA) members in November 1949 that, if pushed too hard to take steps either to treat, re-use, or store waste sulfite pulping liquors, the mill would be forced to close. In early February 1950, Publishers' Paper Company officials spoke to an Oregonian reporter to deny that they'd made these threats.
Recall that Oregon voters had created the OSSA by passing a November 1938 citizen's initiative on a two-to-one vote. This initiative established that it was the policy of the State of Oregon to ensure the quality of the state's waters for recreation, water supplies, agriculture, wildlife, and industry. Since the OSSA began its work in early 1939, the OSSA had been trying to work with the pulp & paper industry to abate its pollution, particularly of the Willamette River. Therefore, by 1949 industry officials were well aware of Oregon law, the work of the OSSA, and growing public sentiment in favor of a cleaner Willamette River.
It did take the OSSA a few more years of pressure, but by 1951 Publishers' was working with Clackamas County officials to use a limited amount of waste sulfite liquors as a binder for gravel roads. In 1953 the company began barging these untreated wastes in 120,000 gallon batches to the Columbia River for dumping.
When the Blue Heron mill closed in February 2011, company officials cited "competition from China for recycled paper, which has increased the cost of materials, as a major factor in the shutdown." Greg Pallesen, vice president of the Association of Western Pulp & Paper Workers, told the Oregonian that "No matter what they pay for it, the Chinese are going to outbid them because of cheap labor and no environmental controls."
I interpret Publishers' 1949 threat as an attempt to sway public opinion in their favor, using a tactic common to a number of industries: threaten citizens with job loss in the hopes of alleviating pressure to comply with environmental, labor, or other laws.
In some respects, it does seem that company officials were accurate in their prediction, just sixty years late, but this certainly isn't all of the story. This seems to be another example of the effects of globalization over the past few decades: Industries tend to relocate to places that lack stronger environmental and labor laws. When we look out today at the relatively clean Willamette River, we can see evidence of previous generations' success in abating pollution locally. What we can't see from our riverside vantage, however, are other rivers throughout the world being polluted by the pulp & paper and other industries. Certainly a conundrum.
 Steve Mayes, "Metro Considers Tapping Natural-Areas Fund to Buy Industrialized Oregon City Site," Oregonian, Sep. 21, 2011.
 For details on the work of the OSSA, see James V. Hillegas, "Working for the 'Working River': Willamette River Pollution, 1926-1962," MA thesis, Portland State University, 2009.
 Steve Mayes, "Oregon City's historic Blue Heron Paper Co. to close Friday, eliminating all 175 jobs," Oregonian, Feb. 23, 2011.