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Ex-employee alleges unreported oil dumping, chemical spills at Boise mill

St. Helens: Indemnification will protect city if property purchased

FILE - The main building on the Boise White Paper mill site is currently occupied by Cascades Tissue Group, which leases space from Boise. At its peak, the mill employed hundreds of people and was an economic engine for St. Helens, under the ownership of Boise Cascade Corp.The city of St. Helens and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality said this week they are looking into claims that toxic materials were improperly disposed of at the Boise White Paper mill three decades ago, after a former millworker said he had firsthand knowledge of a number of possible violations.

The purported whistleblower, who also spoke to the Spotlight on condition of anonymity, said he was part of a work detail that dumped “hundreds” of 55-gallon drums of oil laden with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in an area of the property, which was later paved over and had a chlorine generator building placed on top of it.

PCBs are toxic chemical compounds recognized as contaminants by the DEQ, which has previously found hazardous levels of PCBs in sediments along the Multnomah Channel at the Boise mill site.

The Boise paper mill was a major employer in St. Helens until it closed amid the Great Recession. The city of St. Helens is planning to purchase the property, with an expected closing date of Aug. 20, although City Administrator John Walsh said that as of the start of this week the city had not yet entered into a purchase and sale agreement negotiated with Boise White Paper, LLC.

Walsh was cautious in assessing the whistleblower claims. He said the allegations sounded “scripted” to him, but he said the city was reaching out to Boise for answers.

COURTESY OF THE CITY OF ST. HELENS - An overview map shows the Boise White Paper property in St. Helens highlighted in lime green. The city purchased the neighboring veneer site from Boise Cascade Co. this week and is moving toward acquiring the larger Boise White Paper land as well.According to Walsh, Boise has agreed to an environmental indemnification under which it is responsible for any cleanup for environmental issues discovered after the deal closes. If the city takes possession of the property this summer, as expected, Walsh said Boise would be on the hook until 2055.

Of the allegations, Walsh concluded, “I don’t want to pull the fire alarm if it’s not legitimate, and if it is, we’ll deal with it. Or Boise will deal with it, actually.”

The indemnification is offered through OfficeMax, which Boise Cascade Corp. acquired in 2003.

Debbie Bailey, who is DEQ’s project manager for the Boise White Paper site, said her department was previously unaware of the alleged dumping. However, she said she has seen no evidence of such contaminants leaching from the upland area of the mill property into the area she said has been the DEQ’s top priority, along the Multnomah Channel.

“There’s been no indication of oily materials being found in the groundwater adjacent to the in-water area,” she said.

Bailey said it is “possible” that if Boise Cascade graveled, paved and built over the oil dump site, as the former employee — who filed a formal complaint with DEQ last Monday — is claiming, it could be considered sufficient containment for the toxic material.

However, she and another DEQ official both said the volume of oil alleged to have been dumped is significant.

“Hundreds of 55-gallon drums would be quite a volume,” said Bailey, who indicated the DEQ will seek answers from Boise about the claims. “So I think we’d need to follow up and see what they’d say.”

Bailey’s supervisor, DEQ cleanup program manager Keith Johnson, said the amount of oil described “could pose a real impact.”

“There are situations where there might have been some dumping of a certain thing, but ... we wouldn’t really have a reason to believe that it’s going to be a problem,” he said, adding of the complaint, “That seems pretty significant, with hundreds of 55-gallon drums ... I think we’d want to take a pretty close look at that one.”

Bailey said the mill property is an active site in the DEQ’s cleanup program.

She is anticipating a more detailed report in the coming weeks that will analyze groundwater contamination along the shore.

In addition to the oil dumping, which he said took place sometime in the mid-1980s, the former millworker told the Spotlight he was aware of other chemical spills and leaks involving materials like turpentine, sulphuric acid, and woodmaking byproducts known as green liquor, black liquor and white liquor that he claimed occurred nearly on a daily basis at the paper mill.

The DEQ notes in its online site summary report for the Boise mill site that not all spills and cleanup efforts were documented over the years.

A June 2008 update to the summary report stated in part, “Spills in the upland area have also been documented. The documented spills have been addressed for the most part although documentation could not be found for every instance.”

The Spotlight reached out to Packaging Corp. of America, which purchased Boise in 2013, for comment on the whistleblower claims, but it did not get a response before press time.

Boise currently leases space at the mill site to Cascades Tissue Group, which operates tissue machines on the property. Under the agreement with the city of St. Helens, which Walsh said Boise has signed but the city has not, the city would receive lease revenue from Cascades and future tenants, but it would use half of those proceeds to pay for the property’s $3 million purchase price.