The recent fire at Oregon City's Publisher's/Blue Heron Paper Co. plant was unfortunate. Some may say otherwise ... "That messy plant needs to go." The future of the 23-acre industrial site is not clear at this time, but includes a beautiful esplanade and views of the falls, if project planning moves to execution.
The truth about the previous industrial site has never been properly told. That is the purpose of this article. Having been involved in environmental work all my life, I watched this mill site. One of the most difficult and polluting plants became the nation's premier example of environmental cleanup and enhancement of industrial operations. The mill site, of course, is the center of Oregon City's evolution as "First City" at the falls.
Throughout that area, the first steamboat building, flour milling and other industrial activities were perfected. Ultimately, papermaking, which required some 50,000 gallons of water per ton of paper, became the mainstay.
Mills throughout the Williamette Valley involved in pulp and paper manufacturing were some of the dirtiest operations, up until the late 1960s. Then, soon-to-be Gov. Tom McCall worked to produce "Pollution in Paradise," a documentary featuring the mills at Willamette Falls and many other industrial and food processors throughout the Willamette Valley.
As governor, McCall's first initiatives were to clean up the Willamette and establish land use practices that would protect the environment while encouraging the state's economy. His pick to do the job on Willamette polluters was a tough union boss and strong leader named L.B. Day, from Salem.
His number-one target became Publisher's, soon to be called Blue Heron Paper Co. mill at the falls in Oregon City. That mill produced 500 tons a day of newsprint, primarily used on the West Coast. It had a reputation for serious air and water pollution discharges, and contributed to salmon, steelhead and other fishery declines at a high level.
As head of the newly established Oregon DEQ, L.B. Day's style was to walk into plant locations with a baseball bat and a bucket of carrots, signaling his intent to do business for the governor. McCall's desire was to see incentives provided to mills like Publisher's, and not "whack" them with a regulatory bat.
Those incentives included pollution abatement funds, energy tax credits and other methods. McCall and L.B. Day hoped that it would lead to cleaner industrial processes in Oregon City. It worked!
The recently burned "Mill E" served as the headquarters for the management of environmental systems that McCall, L.B. Day, mill managers and directors hoped would make a better Willamette. Those systems included the use of magazines, phone books and old newspapers for the first time in the world to make new newsprint. The result was far less air and water pollution, and a healthier environment for citizens and workers alike. The mill won the first Environmental Protection Agency award for environmental excellence, and was recognized nationally by President Richard M. Nixon and McCall.
In 1970, David Rockefeller met with McCall at Willamette Falls to discuss the recent National Geographic article, "A River Restored." McCall told Rockefeller of the important contributions that the mill had made to his dream of remaking the Willamette. "The technologies perfected at that mill," he said, "should change papermaking for our world."
They did, and they are used today throughout the Northwest region and continue the legacy of the Publisher's/Blue Heron mill. Even though the heart of it all, "Mill E" burned. The burning desire of McCall for environment and economy continues today because of the legacy of achievement at Willamette Falls.
Jerry Herrmann is president of Rivers of Life Center, a nonprofit organization that provides training and education for at-risk youth and young adults throughout the Willamette Valley.
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