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Settlement to fund DEQ cleanup of contaminated wetlands at Armstrong property

COURTESY PHOTO: DEQ REPORT - Oregon DEQ has reached a tentative settlement with Kaiser Gypsum, the former owners of the fiberboard plant in St. Helens. More recently, the plant was owned and operated by Armstrong, which ceased production in May 2018.The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has reached a settlement agreement with Kaiser Gypsum, the former fiber board manufacturer in St. Helens.

DEQ began investigations into the property in 2001, ultimately finding 15 "contaminants of concern" on the site, including arsenic and dioxin/furans.

Under the proposed settlement, Kaiser Gypsum would pay DEQ $67 million. If the settlement is approved, it will be the largest settlement for any single site cleanup in Oregon DEQ history, according to Sarah Greenfield, the DEQ cleanup project manager and engineer

Kaiser Gypsum filed for bankruptcy in September 2016. The settlement agreement is part of the bankruptcy proceedings, which means it will not be finalized until the bankruptcy court approves the company's full plan to resolve debts.

Even $67 million may not cover the costs of the cleanup.

"That's half of what they'll need to restore it," said Pat Welle, coordinator of the Scappoose Bay Watershed Council.

From 1956 to 1978, Kaiser Gypsum owned and operated production on the roughly 175-acre lot. Owens Corning operated the property from 1978 to 1981, followed by Armstrong World Industries from 1990 to 2018.

Armstrong closed the 130-worker plant last May. DEQ is receiving roughly $11 million combined from Armstrong and Owens Corning. Armstrong agreed to work with DEQ on cleanup of the 36-acre portion of the property where production took place.

That cleanup is scheduled to complete this year, but the remainder of the property is still far from a cleanup. The area surrounding the production facility is wetlands, where industrial wastewater was leaked until the late 1960s.

In the lowland areas, contaminants have reached the sediment, where they can then accumulate in wildlife like fish, a DEQ report shows.

Much of the extent of the contamination, and the threat to people and wildlife nearby, is still unknown.

Before any cleanup work can take place, further DEQ study will determine the extent of contamination, develop cleanup options, and analyze those options to select the preferred alternative, Greenfield explained.

"For a cleanup of this magnitude, we would estimate between three to five years of getting through that process," Greenfield said. DEQ will then have a cleanup plan go out for public comment.

"In sediment cleanups in general, we only have a few options," Greenfield said. Such cleanups can involve removing contaminated sediments, capping and confining sediments, treating the contaminated material, and relying on the ecosystem's natural cleaning processes.

"Design for a sediment site of this size could take one to two, even three years," Greenfield added. The large financial settlement and drawn-out remediation process are largely due to engineering difficulties the wetland site presents.


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