In 2014, Onalaska Wood Energy was an exciting local prospect, hoping to turn forestry scraps into “biochar” — a high-carbon agricultural product and proposed climate mitigation strategy. In a Climate Tour that year, Gov. Jay Inslee awarded the company $20,000, calling it “one of the leaders in biofuel technology.”
But by March 2020, Onalaska Wood Energy had dissolved. What’s left behind on the 8-acre property is approximately 100,000 gallons of hazardous waste now being cleaned up by state and federal agencies. The facility has a history of fires and at least one structural collapse, posing the threat of a spill — or combustion — that could impact nearby communities, estuaries, Gheer Creek, threatened species and the Onalaska wastewater treatment plant.
“Back in 2014, when this began, I don’t know if people fully appreciated what the waste stream would be like. Obviously they didn’t, and so here we are,” on-scene coordinator Brooks Stanfield told The Chronicle.
Stanfield said he underestimated the site, questioning how wood could be turned into substances so toxic. But “the more information we gathered on the waste — it’s the worst it gets.”
At the request of the state, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiated a nearly $890,000 emergency cleanup this week. It could be complete by mid-July. Backlogs at waste disposal sites mean the waste will be hauled off by trucks and trains to sites in Idaho and Utah.
On Wednesday, a 12-person team with respirators and hazmat suits worked to empty hundreds of containers of dangerously-acidic wood vinegar and sludgy wood tar.
In the grand scheme of things, Stanfield said the property could likely be reused for another industrial purpose, but “this is not going to be a daycare any time soon.”
Previously, the site housed the Alexander Lumber Mill, but was later taken over by Onalaska Wood Energy, which used the six-building facility at 1674 state Route 508 to perform wood pyrolysis. And while the hope was to sell the vinegar and tar, EPA documents say the company couldn’t prove the products fell below hazardous waste thresholds, “and never successfully identified a market for the waste.”
The current owners of the property, Stanfield noted, inherited the hazardous waste last year, and have been “impeccable partners” to the federal agency.
Samples taken by the EPA detected several hazardous substances, pollutants or contaminants, including arsenic, carcinogens and toxins to aquatic life.
“Release of liquid waste from an incident such as a building collapse could expose on-site workers, emergency responders, and individuals on neighboring properties to corrosive, acutely toxic and carcinogenic substances through inhalation and dermal contact,” a May memorandum from the EPA reads.
Beyond humans, the chemicals could impact nearby Gheer Creek, a rearing site for salmon and steelhead. Local high school students also use the creek to release hatchery-produced fish as part of a celebrated aquaculture technical program. This April, students were joined by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, members of the Chehalis Tribe, as well as U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler in releasing 35,000 steelhead and 100,000 coho salmon smolts into the creek.
“This property drains … right into that creek, so if there’s a spill here, that’s going to impact this fantastic community asset,” Stanfield said.
The EPA also identified 11 threatened or protected species within a 5-mile radius of the site, including bull trout, streaked horned lark and western screech-owl.
The fear of local contamination from the old mill site has come to fruition before.
In 2017, The Chronicle reported that Onalaska Wood Energy got slapped with a $2,000 fine after illegally discharging stormwater “contaminated with dangerous waste into state waters.” The company also reportedly dumped material directly onto the land, which made its way through a drainage ditch to the town’s wastewater treatment plant.
Last year, a new entity began operating on the property — CJC West LLC — and was ordered by Ecology to properly manage and dispose of the accumulated waste. The company never formally responded, according to the EPA, and ceased operations in February of this year.
In January, when officials expressed structural concerns about one open-air building housing tens of thousands of gallons of waste near residential homes, CJC West relocated the material. Just days later, part of the roof collapsed during a winter storm.
Two recent on-site fires also raised concerns. Large piles of sawdust and “limited fire suppression water available on site” elevate fire risk on the property, according to the EPA. One fire was caused by an electrical shortage in a forklift, which was leaking fuels onto sawdust. Another started when friction ignited charcoal. Smoke from the hazardous waste stored on-site could impact residents within a 2-mile radius.
On Monday, Lewis County Code Compliance Officer Bill Teitzel told the local board of health that cleanup will be “pretty visible” to passersby. While the county will be largely hands-off in the cleanup process, Tietzel noted that local officials’ biggest concern is hazardous waste impacting the wastewater treatment plant again.
According to EPA spokesperson Suzanne Skadowski, an evaluation of how much environmental contamination has already occured may come later, as well as a determination of who’s financially culpable. A 1980 law informally known as “Superfund” gives the EPA broad power to force responsible parties to pay for cleanups.
“We have legal authority to really dig deep and look hard at who might be responsible,” she said. “Be it one company, 10 companies, whether they’re still in business or not. We’ve got smart people that can find who’s responsible.”