Guest Opinions

New pulp plant will invigorate Columbia County

Aerial view of Columbia Pulp in Lyons Ferry near Starbuck.
Aerial view of Columbia Pulp in Lyons Ferry near Starbuck. Pacific Civil and Infrastructure

When the manufacturing sector is strong, communities become stronger as good-paying jobs support families and the tax base that funds critical local services and schools.

If you need one great example of that, just look to Columbia Pulp in Lyons Ferry near Starbuck. The AWB Manufacturing Week bus tour swung by the $184 million manufacturing facility along the Snake River in October to see first-hand what the new facility will do and hear a bit more about some of the high-tech innovations.

The revolutionary plant in southeast Washington is currently under construction. Once in full service, it will process 240,000 tons of straw per year, taking what has historically been a waste product and turning it into pulp used to make paper and other products.

The mill will employ as many as 90 people at the plant and an additional 20 at the company’s Dayton office.

In Columbia County, a county that has lost population over the past decades, the state Employment Security Department calculates a population of just under 4,000 residents and 1,760 in the civilian labor force. The payroll for the facility is estimated at $9 million annually.

Good living-wage jobs in a county that needs them — that is a game changer for families and the community that relies on a strong tax base for services, schools and safety.

But job creation is only part of the company’s positive and welcome impact. It’s also a game-changer for the environment.

The region is home to the highest density wheat farming areas in North America.

Columbia Pulp will serve as an economic lifeline to wheat growers, purchasing the leftover straw from the harvest for $10-15 per ton to make the tree-free and environmentally sustainable pulp used in the papermaking process.

Prior to the proprietary innovation at Columbia Pulp the waste straw from the large wheat harvest was eliminated in large part through burning that produced significant toxic emissions in the region. Now, that straw will be used in the facility’s state-of-the-art process that processes the material into valuable products, thereby giving it another life and eliminating thousands of tons of emissions.

The facility is also energy efficient, self-contained and the process was designed to use significantly less chemicals, less water and less energy than that of a traditional pulp mill.

It’s for this reason, and many others, that Columbia Pulp received AWB’s 2018 Manufacturing Excellence Award for Operational Excellence Nov. 28 at the association’s annual Evening of Excellence.

When we think of manufacturing today, it should be viewed in the context of how Washington state produces goods shipped all over the world all while providing family-wage jobs and harnessing innovation to support the shared environmental values of all Washingtonians.

And, as Columbia Pulp illustrates, manufacturing invigorates communities — those that are still working to recover from the most recent recession and those looking to create a more diverse economic footprint — through investment and job creation.

This economic engine is helping Columbia County roar back to life, little by little, and it’s just the start.

John Begley is the CEO of Columbia Pulp. Kris Johnson is the president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce and designated manufacturing association.