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Reincarnating the Pulp Mill 

The Harbor District wants to the buy the blighted industrial site and turn it green

Sometime in mid-February the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District is slated to consider whether to buy the long-dormant Samoa pulp mill and try to coax it back to life. And this time, it could be a green life. If the deal goes through, the district could potentially turn about half of the 156-acre site into an eco-friendly business park, research facility and public dock.

 "I'm excited at the prospect," said Harbor Commissioner Richard Marks. "Now we need to find out if the project is sound and financially viable." A business park would bring in jobs, and a public dock would mean open access to the bay for shippers. Docking fees would generate income for the district, which it could turn around and use to buy a dredger instead of renting one every seven years at considerable expense.

According to CEO Jack Crider, the district could use a combination of cash reserves, grants and loans to purchase the property, which is owned by Freshwater Tissue Company. The district currently has $1.7 million in cash reserves, down from $6 million in 2006. The asking price for the property has not been disclosed due to the ongoing nature of the negotiations.

A key element of the project would be an aquaculture business park, which former HSU student Erika Guevara Blackwell has been working to develop for the past two and a half years. When the mill closed in 2010, Blackwell, then a marine biology and oceanography student, approached owner Bob Simpson with the idea. He liked it, and in 2011 Blackwell commissioned a pre-feasibility study through HSU's Environmental Resources Engineering department. Last year she coordinated a visit by Jan War of the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, who concluded that the Freshwater Tissue site "is readymade for re-purposing into land-based aquatic culture operations."

Blackwell's project came to be known as the Humboldt Aquaculture Innovation Center, with her serving as director. Last year she was awarded a $70,000 Headwaters Fund grant, with the Redwood Region Economic Development Center serving as the nonprofit fiscal receiver. When RREDC learned of the Harbor District's intentions it decided to transfer the grant money over to the agency.

Blackwell, meanwhile, has been working in partnership with the Harbor District, the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, HSU and local aquaculture representatives to lay the groundwork for expanding commercial freshwater and seawater aquaculture on the pulp mill's repurposed industrial land.

The site has a lot going for it, but there are some potential problems, too. Part of the sales agreement would be to accept the site's hazardous waste, including 4 million gallons of industrial "black" liquors used in the kraft process for digesting pulpwood. The liquors could be used by another kraft-style pulp mill, but even if another pulp mill accepts them, transportation for the caustic liquid could run in the neighborhood of $2 million. "There are a lot of challenges there," Crider said of the clean-up.

But it's something that needs to happen, according to Marks. "The holding tanks are not meant for long-term storage," he said. If we had a large enough earthquake and the liquors escaped into local waters, "it would put an end to surfing, fishing and crabbing for a while."

The pulp mill site was purchased by Freshwater Tissue Company in February 2009 with the hopes of converting forest residuals into "eco-friendly toilet paper." But Simpson was never able to secure the funding to turn his dream into reality.

For most of its life the pulp mill has been a toxic mess.  According to a 1989 Surfrider Foundation lawsuit, the Samoa mill and a second pulp mill on the peninsula used to dump a combined 40 million gallons of untreated wastewater into the ocean every day. But since it was shut down, many locals miss the hundreds of unionized jobs that were lost.

"I see great potential for the site," says Ted Kuiper, a shellfish culture consultant advising the district. As the only location in California with a certified High Health Plan through the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Humboldt Bay is uniquely positioned to cultivate "spats" (baby oysters and clams) for the West Coast, Canada and Mexico. As ocean acidification increases, the sensitive little spats will need to be raised in controlled environments with high water quality. In 2010 shellfish farming in Humboldt Bay generated $9.3 million in sales and employed 65 people. Of those sales, 16 percent was generated by cultivating spats for export outside the county.

In addition to aquaculture potential, there is a large on-site water treatment facility that could lend itself to water-intensive businesses such as a bottled water plant, drywall manufacturing or a brewery. The warehouse space could be used to manufacture green energy products such as offshore wind turbines and wave-energy buoys.

One of the site's biggest assets, according to Crider, is the outfall line, a pipeline extending a mile and a half into the ocean that could be used for aquaculture and water discharge, as a wave energy power conduit, or as an onshore fiber-optic cable landing. Crider says companies that specialize in underwater fiber-optic cables pay up to $1.5 million for a landing site. As far as the research potential, a facility such as HSU's Schatz Energy Research Center could use the site to study green energy sources such as membrane osmosis or wave energy.

"Right now it's a mess," Crider said of the site. "It's been sold, spun off and there are a bunch of old easements." Over the long term, though, he sees purchasing the old mill site as "a fantastic opportunity." But the window for that opportunity may not remain open indefinitely. While the buildings have potential, Crider said, they're losing value as they sit empty, rusting away on the peninsula. He, Blackwell and others are ready to bring the site back to life. 

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Benjamin Fordham

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