With mill closed, future of wastewater lagoon in limbo

15-acre detention pond is final stop for effluent before it enters Willamette
by: VERN UYETAKE Since the 1960s or ’70s, Blue Heron Paper Mill has piped wastewater under the river from Oregon City to a lagoon in West Linn, where the water is treated before flowing back into the Willamette.

The future of the Blue Heron Paper Mill in Oregon City, and its wastewater treatment lagoon in West Linn, will hang in limbo until an owner is determined after bankruptcy proceedings.

The Blue Heron mill closed in late February. A federal bankruptcy court hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

Rob Burkhart, a water quality specialist with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said his agency is keeping tabs on what happens.

'The main issue we're concerned with is ensuring a responsible party remains in control of the site and abides by state and federal laws,' said Robert Burkhart, a water quality specialist with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. 'We're monitoring the situation very closely.'

Though the mill is in Oregon City, Blue Heron owns a large chunk of land near Willamette Falls Drive in West Linn.

Burkhart believes the West Linn lagoon, known as an 'aerated stabilization basin' to those in the water quality and pulp and paper industries, has been around since the 1960s or early '70s. Sometimes it's referred to as 'Publishers Pond' on area maps - likely a reference to the mill's former incarnation as Publishers Paper Company.

The 15-acre detention pond, part of almost 40 acres owned by Blue Heron in West Linn, is the final stop for the mill's effluent before it goes into the Willamette River.

Here's how it works: The mill sends any wastewater from the paper-making process to a clarifier, basically a large, round pool perched on a basalt ledge in Oregon City where solid materials settle out and sink to the bottom. Pumps then drive the water upstream and pipe it beneath the Willamette River to West Linn, where it flows into the detention pond. Microorganisms in the pond consume and help break down any remaining organic matter. The treated water is then discharged into the river.

Although paper-making has ceased at the mill, some water is still coming into the detention pond - and flowing out into the river - because the lagoon also collects rain and groundwater from the mill site.

'But the water now being discharged is the cleanest it's been in decades,' Burkhart said.

In terms of what happens with the site, that depends on the new owner, which remains uncertain. Converting the land to another use would require filing a clean-up plan with the state.

And exactly what lies at the bottom of the lagoon won't be known until the pond dregs are tested.

If Blue Heron had been bleaching pulp for paper, Burkhart said, he would be concerned about the presence of dioxins, which are really toxic. However, he said the company wasn't using bleach.

Officials will instead look for heavy metals, he said. Because Blue Heron recycled wastepaper, contaminants could have arrived with those materials.

Burkhart is also trying to track down DEQ records kept in long-term storage that show detailed results of testing at the pond in the late 1990s, the last time the lagoon was dredged. Notes about the testing show the solids picked up then were clean, he said, and ultimately they were tilled into soil at area farms.

He acknowledged he's heard casual complaints about a foul sulfur smell wafting from the lagoon.

Though that could result from organic matter breaking down without oxygen, he said, in Blue Heron's case the mill had to ensure there was enough oxygen in the water to limit production of hydrogen sulfide.

Instead, he pointed to a neighboring sanitary waste pump station - not owned by Blue Heron Paper - as the likely source of the smell.