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Blue Heron’s shuttered paper mill along the riverfront in Oregon City has inspired retail and condo developers, but the site also has enough contaminated ground to cover several football fields and enough poison to kill everything in sight.

by: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - Iron- and copper-laced water seeps out of the walls underneath the crumbling Blue Heron paper plant in Oregon City.Much like other historic heavy industrial operations, the mill’s polluted legacy includes chemical tank overflows, leaky equipment, dripping overlubricated vehicles, high-pressure hydraulic hose leaks and ongoing pipe leaks — some deep underground.

That’s where appropriately named Gullywasher comes in with its high-tech contaminant removal device: compost. Jeff Pettey, 59, a mechanical process engineer for the company trying to clean up and control Blue Heron’s mess, sees organic materials as the key in digesting a wide range of oils and chemicals.

by: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - Gullywasher engineers Bob MacMillan (right) and Jeff Pettey discuss plans to build a system to control polluted runoff under the shuttered paper plant.To collect the contaminated runoff from remaining buildings, Gullywasher installed bins below gutters as filters. With gravel and rocks at their base, the 275-gallon chemical totes then use a compost/sand mixture on top to process the dirty rainwater. Bark chips cover the layers to keep everything in place.

Although the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality only required 11 of these composting systems, Pettey insisted on putting in 29. Fish begin to suffer from copper coming off of wires and from the zinc on galvanized surfaces such as roofs at 120 parts per billion.

“You have to do something radical like we’re doing here so we have the bones to progress for the future,” Pettey said.

In other areas of the site, the Willamette River’s hydraulic pressure behind PGE’s dam pushes water into less-resistant underground paths through the paper mill. In other words, streams are finding their way through Blue Heron’s underground oil and chemical deposits.

To control pollution from this underground river, Gullywasher is building another hydraulic dam filled with socks of compost to act as a filter. Pettey and his team were racing against DEQ’s Aug. 31 deadline to remove dirty water with a pump-and-clarifier system.

“We’re looking forward to building a passive system that doesn’t require outside maintenance,” he said.

While touring the site recently, Pettey ran into Kamal Gemayel, 63, who had supervised Blue Heron’s electrical instrumentation for 35 years and who is helping the company’s bankruptcy trustee safely unplug and de-wire the site. Pettey lamented that Blue Heron didn’t reinvest in itself so the “incredibly tired and worn-out plant eventually had to close down because of short-term thinking about the bottom line.” Although he’d just like to see the plant reopen, Gemayel recognized that change was inevitable.

“It’s hard to imagine something different than a paper mill here as long as there’s a mill on the other side,” Gemayel said. “But anything to make the site more environmentally friendly is appreciated and much better than leaving everything as it is.”

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