With new company, county may get fill of woody fiber
Starting this summer, Columbia County will have another company contending for the lion's share of the competitive and costly sawdust and woody debris market.
Clearwater Paper is in the process of building a small loading and transport facility on the banks of the Columbia River in Columbia City. There, the company will collect trucked-in shipments of wood fiber from regional mills - including sawdust and other excess wood debris, which result from the manufacture of building supplies - and use a conveyor system to load the sawdust onto barges traveling upstream to a paper production facility in Lewiston, Idaho.
The company, based out of Spokane, Wash., uses the sawdust to manufacture store-brand toilet paper and paperboard boxes, in which products like pill bottles come. By using barges and a route that traces the Columbia River through Oregon and east through tributaries to Idaho, company representatives hope to move what amounts to about 75 truckloads per week.
But by doing so, the company will join West Oregon Wood Products, which produces wood pellets and fire-starting logs, in the local sawdust procurement business. West Oregon Wood Products has already decreased its production due to a continuing slump in new housing construction, which has led to less available sawdust.
'We're certainly concerned about this,' said Chris Sharron, owner of West Oregon Wood Products, which employs 35 people at its facility, located on Port of St. Helens property in Columbia City. 'Having a competitor for sawdust coming into the area will be tough because the lumber market remains extremely soft and the lumber mills are struggling now with issues other than just the soft economy [from the housing market collapse]. Now they're competing with logs that are going to exports, to China mainly, and it's driven the cost of logs up.'
The two companies are within a quarter mile of each other and will likely buy the limited sawdust supplies from the same mills, located within a 100-mile radius. Many of these mills have themselves cut back production, Sharron said.
From Sharron's perspective, it would make little difference if Clearwater Paper was moving to a location 50 miles away: There's little room for competition.
Rick Williams, procurement specialist for Clearwater Paper, said he understands the concerns: that two companies, vying for limited resources may result in the mutually assured failure of both.
'[Sawdust] is very hard to find right now because … the housing business is what draws the market,' Williams said. 'It is a difficult time to start [an operation] like this, but we're not being daunted by it.'
Once it's running, most of the facility's work will be done electronically. Two employees will work at the facility, Williams said.
To secure the deal, Clearwater Paper has entered into a sublease with the property's current lease-holder, Dixieland ProBuild, in addition to a lease with the Port of St. Helens for a sliver of the land near the river. The lease agreement with the port is worth $653 a month, according to Pat Trapp, the port's executive director. He said representatives from Clearwater Paper made it clear that they had their eyes on one acre on the far end of the 5.2-acre property, land buffered by the river. 'We wanted to make sure it worked for them,' Trapp said.
Whether the companies compete against each other is not his concern, he added, though he hopes both succeed.
Clearwater Paper has already moved through Oregon's mandated permitting processes, completing the Department of Environmental Quality's stormwater application for minor construction work. The company plans to start transporting sawdust later this summer.
The permitting process is a requirement because the river-adjacent land is considered unprotected from runoff, according to the Department of Environmental Quality. As much as 70 times more runoff can result from minor road construction on unprotected land. But Tom Rosetta, a water quality specialist with the Department of Environmental Quality, said there is little chance of pollution from the facility.
'There will be no industrial process happening,' he said.