Project remains in limbo as environmental issues at the site are assessed

by: TIDINGS FILE PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - The city of  West Linn  hopes to  know by  July whether significant redevelopment can be  made  on the  Blue Heron property.Though still in a preliminary stage, the city’s Blue Heron project is making advancements.

A presentation at Monday’s city council meeting demonstrated progress in determining potential uses for the 39-acre site along the Willamette River. The site is near Willamette Park and is the former property of the bankrupt Blue Heron Paper Company.

After Blue Heron declared bankruptcy, Clackamas County’s Water Environment Services purchased the site last spring for $1.75 million with interest in the site’s valuable outfall permits. Those permits will allow WES to release treated wastewater into the Willamette River. WES is working on behalf of the Tri-City Service District and Clackamas County Service District No. 1. CCSD No. 1 and the Tri-City Service District provide wastewater services to most of urbanized north Clackamas County.

The purchase includes the land and environmental assets, including not only the outfall into the Willamette River but also the pipes, easements and existing environmental permits. The districts will use the site’s outfall to meet the challenges of increasingly stringent rules regulating mixing zones and heat discharges into the Willamette River.

A small portion of the site will be reserved for future use by the two districts, while the remaining acreage will be available for other public uses as determined by the city of West Linn. Working with WES, the city of West Linn has drafted a work program for the creation of a master plan for the site.

The lagoon site contains a 15-acre settling pond, which currently has between 5 and 15 feet of sludge at the bottom. Wetlands and habitat conservation areas lie between the pond and the northern edge of the property, which is steeply sloped.

Speaking in front of the council Monday, Planning Director John Sonnen, Associate Planner Sara Javoronok and members of the Blue Heron Redevelopment Task Force revealed 11 potential concepts for the site — whittled down from hundreds of ideas that had come pouring in since initial planning began.

The concepts included both passive and active parks; an interpretive learning center; a community or aquatic center; mixed income and green housing development; high-rise senior condos; high-end housing; a campground; a new public works operations facility; and commercial development.

“We’re kind of at this juncture where we’re trying to figure out what the feasibility of pursuing some of these ideas is,” Sonnen said. “And we’re just on the cusp of finding some of that out. So really the opportunity here was to explain where we’re at with the project, see if the council has any ideas they want us to evaluate — which they don’t — and then just beware of the process going forward.”

Indeed, Sonnen cautioned that the feasibility of these concepts remains to be seen, in large part because of the environmental concerns surrounding the site. The bulk of the property is contained within a 15-acre pond, which for the last 40 years has been used to treat and settle cellulose and other wastewater materials from the former Blue Heron Paper mill in Oregon City.

An environmental assessment of the pond, which was completed back in March of 2012, found about 200,000 cubic yards of sludge containing low levels of contaminants and ranging between 5 and 14 feet in depth. The next step — to be completed no later than August — is for WES to complete its remedial investigation of the site, which will help determine “the nature, extent and distribution of hazardous substances at or emanating for the site” and any “risk to human health and the environment in the context of reasonably likely future land and water uses,” according to a recent memo sent from Sonnen and Javoronok to City Manager Chris Jordan.

“To get rid of the sludge and the comtaminated material there, or render it harmless, they basically have to dry it out,” Sonnen said. “And the cheapest alternative seems to be you dry it out pretty much in place and then take the 15-foot berm that rims it and push it in on top of it. That wouldn’t provide a stable platform to do anything on.”

The hope, according to Sonnen, is to push the sludge to one smaller portion of the site and contain it, which would allow for construction on the remaining acreage.

Whether this is a viable financial option remains to be seen.

“WES has said they’ll do a base level remediation,” Sonnen said. “So we need to figure out what it’s going to cost to go beyond that, and is it going to make economic sense to make that investment to provide for one of those uses?”

Sonnen expects to have a better assessment by July, and the task force will proceed accordingly from that point.

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