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Winds of change in Cosmopolis

Global competition and local air quality

A heavy haze hovers over the area more days than not. Foul odors travel along the Chehalis River shoreline south towards Westport. About 12 miles south of the mill you can step out of your front door into acrid smelling air. The smell increases as you get closer to Aberdeen, but once across the Chehalis River bridge into the city, it usually dissipates.

Complaints prompt a hearing

The smell emanates from the Cosmo Specialty Fibers, a dissolving wood pulp mill in Cosmopolis. The mill’s air quality permit was recently the subject of a hearing called by the WA Department of Ecology (DOE)—in response to an increase in complaints about bad air. About 50 people attended the hearing—mostly residents of Cosmopolis and adjoining neighborhoods.  Many had worked in the mills or have relatives and friends who do.

A vulnerable community

Cosmopolis is a small town situated on the Chehalis River about 3 miles southeast of Aberdeen. The town’s first sawmill opened on the banks of the river in 1888. The community is predominantly working-class, dependent from the beginning on timber mills for jobs, and disproportionately affected by their polluting processes.

Long-standing air quality problems

The Weyerhaeuser Corporation operated a dissolving grade pulp mill in the town from 1962 to 2006. Dissolving pulp is not made into paper, but dissolved using a sulfite process that allows it to be spun into textile fibers or chemically reacted to produce forms of cellulose. The sulfite process produces emissions and effluents that require substantial treatment before they can safely be discharged.

Residents attending the hearing voiced general frustration and deep concern about the pervasive odor and the particulates emitted from the smoke stacks

Over the years of Weyerhaeuser operations, people living in South Aberdeen and Cosmopolis experienced health problems from emissions and odors coming from the mill’s settlement ponds and smoke stacks. Even though the mill was then the area’s largest employer, and many worried that the action might lead to closure, local residents filed a class action suit against Weyerhaeuser in 1991. The case settled in 1993 with some payments to plaintiffs. Weyerhaeuser operated the mill for another 13 years until, in 2006, the owners announced that it would not be profitable for them to make necessary upgrades. The closure put over 250 people out of work.

A new owner puts people back to work

The mill sat idle until 2011, when the Gores Group, a private equity firm in California, purchased the mill, refitted it to produce dissolving wood pulp utilizing a magnesium-based acid sulfite production technology, and brought new life to the community when it hired 200 workers. At the time of purchase, the company, incorporated as Cosmo Specialty Fibers, was allowed to take over the Weyerhaeuser air quality permit.

Odor and health issues persist

Residents attending the hearing voiced general frustration and deep concern about the pervasive odor and the particulates emitted from the smokestacks.  Some particulates were identified as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitric oxides among other toxic pollutants.

One question was whether to adjust Cosmo’s air quality permit before renewing it for another five years. People wanted better protection for themselves, their children and the community. Many spoke about the impact the fumes had on kids at the elementary school near the mill, about increased incidence of asthma and fears of cancer. They described debilitating smells and the cumulative effects of living under an endless haze.  Some said they would like the mill to close and an effort made to retrain workers.

Does monitoring matter?

The experiences and reports from the people at the hearing were challenged—air quality monitoring consistently showed “good.” A worker checks levels at the mill and sends reports to DOE. Some monitoring is visual—for example the density or opacity of the plume coming out of the stack.  DOE visits once a year or if there is an issue. Testing devices are supposed to be inspected for accuracy once a year. The DOE staff admitted that they lack staff to increase on-site visits.

When the DOE staff revealed that the only air monitor in the area is on N. Division Street in Aberdeen it caused a stir in the audience. The consensus was that since odors are rarely detectable in Aberdeen, those monitor readings of “good” are meaningless.

When asked about moving the monitor or adding others closer to the mill so as to get more meaningful readings, the DOE staffer said there was no money for that. How much money? Around $50,000 was the reply. One attendee asked, “How expensive is cancer treatment?”  Another suggested placing a monitor on a van to collect readings in a variety of places. Many were worried about their health; some were angry.

Are permitted levels safe levels?

As for the position of Cosmo Fibers, their website addresses air emission and water effluent limits in words that start with an all-too-familiar reminder:

The mill must be financially sustainable to remain open. To be financially viable, the mill must be globally competitive in terms of product mix, quality and cost. These operational characteristics drive the feedstocks we use, which, in turn, results in certain potential mill effluent and emission levels. These effluent and emission levels cannot leave the mill until they are within strict limits determined as environmentally acceptable by the DOE and EPA.

If DOE doesn’t have adequate staff to enforce limits and the only air quality monitoring device is located beyond the reach of emissions, what assurance does the immediate community have that their health and their children’s health is not being endangered?

What does the future hold?

Is it likely that the impacts on air quality from emissions at Cosmo Fiber will improve?  The concern is real for rural communities where mills provide living wage jobs and maintain their profitability by overlooking environmental consequences. Demands that industrial polluters in Grays Harbor clean up their act have often been met with hostility because of the supposed threat to jobs.

Still, Cosmo Fiber touts its understanding of the importance of air quality to the community:

We know that maintaining great air quality will encourage families and businesses to locate here and remain here.

This suggests a commitment to clean air, though history tells us that private corporations often make public statements later contradicted by their actions. Outside investors’ decisions reflect profit goals, not environmental sustainability or local community values.

The larger issue is a societal one. Too many communities with little power or influence have been held hostage by extractive polluting industries and lax enforcement of regulations. They accept air and water pollution under the threat of unemployment. Would cooperatively owned businesses calculate the return on their investment differently and move away from extractive industries? Perhaps the time has come for a change.

Linda Orgel lives in rural Grays Harbor County on the south shore of Grays Harbor Estuary.

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