- Associated Press - Sunday, November 16, 2014

SISTERS, Ore. (AP) - The owner of the plywood mill that burned to the ground in July has finished the extensive site cleanup, but hasn’t decided on the next steps - including whether it will rebuild in Springfield.

Swanson Group Inc. would like to rebuild on the property on South F Street, said Chuck Wert, the Glendale-based company’s executive vice president, but it also is exploring buying an existing mill. The mills that company officials have looked at are primarily outside of Lane County, he said.

“We like the Springfield location but there are also some challenges, including the size and composition of the property,” he said.

The site is awkward to access and is hemmed in. On the north side, the company leases the access road to the mill from Union Pacific Railroad. On the south side of the property, there are plans for a trail that would run between the southern border of the site and the recently restored millrace.

Wert said the company has talked with Springfield city officials, the governor’s office and state Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, and they all have “shown a great willingness to assist this potential redevelopment project however they can.”

He said the company would decide on the mill’s future by early January.

Meanwhile, there are stirrings that legal action might result from the fire, including possibly from one unhappy resident whose property was contaminated with asbestos from falling debris.

Deliberate act ruled out

The fire destroyed the 166,000-square-foot Springfield Plywood and Veneer mill on July 17, displacing 250 workers. Employees said the fire started in one of the three massive veneer dryers and spread rapidly. No serious injuries were reported.

Debris contaminated with asbestos rained down on properties miles away from the burning mill. Residents reported debris on 40 properties, and the company has cleaned up debris on 26 of them.

An investigation by the company’s property insurer has been unable to identify a clear cause of the fire, but it did rule out a deliberate act, Wert said.

“It was definitely an accident,” he said.

Cleanup took 10 weeks

A separate investigation by the local fire marshal’s office continues, and the lead investigator has said it could take up to a year for it to wrap up.

Swanson Group received a settlement check last month from the property insurer. Wert declined to say how much the insurer paid on the claim.

The fire left ash and other debris contaminated with asbestos on the site, and crews spent more than 10 weeks cleaning it up and disposing of it at the county-owned Short Mountain Landfill near Goshen.

Workers sealed the asbestos-tainted debris in “burrito wrappers” made of 6-millimeter-thick plastic sheets before burying it at the landfill. Each of the 116 wrappers weighed about eight tons, said Doug Moore, the local contractor who oversaw the asbestos removal and disposal.

A recycler also removed 3,600 tons of steel from the site.

It was the largest amount of asbestos-tainted debris the landfill has taken in, said Daniel Hurley, Lane County’s waste manager, and the fees provided the department an extra $123,000 in revenue.

The department will use the windfall to equip its compactors with GPS so they can operate more efficiently, lowering operating costs and extending the life of the landfill, he said.

Runoff suspected in fish kill

The Lane Regional Air Protection Agency oversaw the removal and disposal of the asbestos-tainted debris and reported no problems.

Moore said crews were vigilant about keeping the debris wet with a sprinkler system and vehicles equipped with water cannons so asbestos remained soggy and didn’t get into the air. The dry, flaky material can lodge in the lungs if a person breathes it in and can cause health problems. The air around the mill was regularly monitored during the cleanup.

Moore said the mill “looked like Hiroshima” after the fire.

But the cleanup scene featured at least one ironic situation, when workers peeked into the heatinsulated veneer dryers, one of which is the likely source of the fire. “There was this pristine veneer inside those dryers like nothing ever happened,” Moore said.

The state Department of Environmental Quality monitored to make sure contaminated runoff didn’t flow into the millrace.

Such runoff was the likely cause of a fish kill that prompted authorities to temporarily restrict public access to a section of the Willamette River immediately after the fire.

Crews were able to capture the water on site, except in one case when heavy rain in late September allowed it to spill into the waterway.

But testing showed that runoff turned the water less alkaline than during the fire, said Geoff Brown, a DEQ official who coordinated the agency’s response during and after the fire. The change in water chemistry most likely stressed and killed the fish during the fire, he has said.

“I think (Swanson) did a good job, and overall they managed the whole thing pretty proactively,” he said.

Neighbor hires attorney

Not everyone agrees.

Gregory Nieckarz hired an attorney shortly after he and his wife learned that asbestos contaminated their 1-acre property near Mount Pisgah.

Nieckarz, a chemist, said he wanted to learn more about what the fire released into the broader community and why it took officials a week to alert residents about the asbestos.

Swanson Group cleaned up Nieckarz’s property and was cooperative for the first couple of weeks, Nieckarz said. He hired the attorney, Elisabeth Holmes, after he started asking deeper questions “and the answers didn’t come.”

“It’s too early to tell,” he said, when asked if he would file a lawsuit. “We don’t have all the information back. We are very upset about how the situation was handled.”

Holmes submitted to Eugene Springfield Fire an extensive public records request in August. So far, she said, the agency has not provided any documents.

Wert declined to comment directly about Nieckarz’s concerns but said the company “used the same care, concern and full deployment (of) the environmental clean-up resources for them as we did” for the others.

Asked if The Swanson Group was considering legal action related to the fire, Werts responded it “somewhat depends on the ultimate findings as to cause and origin” but declined further comment.


The original story can be found on The Register-Guard’s website: https://bit.ly/1wXIUEb


Information from: The Register-Guard, https://www.registerguard.com

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