New mill to convert wheat straw to pulp expects to hire 80 people

Progress is moving forward on Columbia Pulp’s new plant north of Dayton. With a pilot plant starting in July in Pomeroy and the goal of beginning pulp production at the Lyons Ferry operation in the fourth quarter this year, the company is ramping up recruitment efforts.

CEO John Begley said the pilot plant “is a small replica of the big mill that we will use to train our employees and develop samples for customers.”

Columbia Pulp aims to revolutionize pulp production by creating a market for a former waste byproduct, wheat straw, which will be used to produce sustainable paper-making pulp to manufacture paper towels, facial tissue, packaging, molded fiber for single-use plates, cups, de-icing and dust abatement agents, and more.

With orders already on the books, and more than 100,000 tons of straw on-hand to feed the mill at start-up, Columbia Pulp is actively hiring. Key positions listed under the employment section of its website include journeyman electrician, maintenance mechanic, controller and purchasing assistant.

Begley said about 30 employees have been hired — it held a job fair in May — but that the company plans to bring on another 75 to 80 workers this year.

Ground was broken in August 2017 on the $185 million complex, which comprises about 15 acres near the Lyons Ferry bridge, north of Dayton in Columbia County. Pacific Civil Infrastructure Inc. of Sumner is the general contractor, with several local subcontractors such as G2 Construction of Kennewick, also making contributions.

In selling its leftover straw to Columbia Pulp’s subsidiary, Columbia Straw Supply, local wheat farmers stand to benefit from the profitable, eco-friendly alternative to the costly practice of burning it after harvest. About 1 million tons are burned annually in the state of Washington, Begley said.

Conservation districts sell permits to burn the wheat straw residue, priced per acre.

Cody Chapman, a Dayton wheat grower who has sold to Columbia Straw Supply, said it’s a hefty cost to factor in when burning 1,300 acres biannually.

“Income off of the straw has been nice,” he said. “You pay to burn, but now I’m creating income through the straw.”

Skip Mead, a Dayton wheat grower who plans to sell straw to Columbia Straw Supply, said he doesn’t know anyone who likes to burn it. “Burning was just another tool,” he said.

So, what’s kept wheat straw from becoming a valuable commodity until now?

Wheat straw had eluded commercialization by the North American paper industry because of limitations of existing pulping technologies, according to the company.

But that changed when Begley was approached five years ago by University of Washington researchers Mark Lewis and Bill McKean, who had responded to the state Department of Ecology’s call for a solution to the leftover straw dilemma.

Begley, who had accumulated more than 40 years of experience in the pulp and paper industry through his work with Weyerhaeuser, Port Townsend Paper and Grays Harbor Paper in leading roles, came out of retirement to pursue the new project with McKean and Lewis, forming Columbia Pulp.

Begley reported that the project is being financed by a combination of $135 million in solid waste disposal bonds supplied through the Washington Economic Development Finance Authority, which are underwritten by Goldman Sachs.

The remaining $50 million is private equity invested into the firm and managed by Columbia Ventures Corp., based in Vancouver, Washington.

Columbia Pulp is sourcing its straw from within a 75-mile radius of the plant, Begley said, and the Columbia County Conservation District helped to promote the idea to local growers at a meeting three years ago.

“This whole thing’s a success story,” Mead said.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity for our economy and I really hope that it takes off and is here for a long time,” Chapman said.

However, local growers aren’t without their reservations, as many consider the burning of leftover straw an important part of soil renewal.

“There is a way to do it right and not steal from your soil, which I think a lot of people are concerned about,” Mead said. “I think with good management, you can do both — you can save your nutrients and supply some straw.”

Chapman said he aims for long-term sustainability in his fields. In a higher rainfall area like Dayton, Chapman’s fields are on a four-year rotation and straw is baled for sale during the second year of that rotation.

“We’re only taking straw off one of those four years. … Currently, we’re not seeing any nutrient loss,” he said, adding that yearly soil tests reveal patterns in nutrient deficiencies.

The amount of straw used by Columbia Pulp for manufacturing market pulp and then paper products will replace approximately 280,000 tons of wood chips, positively impacting forest sustainability, the company said.

The innovative concept will serve to revitalize the local straw industry via an estimated annual $13 million in straw purchase, eliminating the need to burn 250,000 of the four million tons produced within the sourcing area of the Lyons Ferry plant, saving an estimated 45,000 tons of air emissions, Begley said.

The state-of-the-art facility also will incorporate energy-efficient processes because it will use less energy and chemicals than traditional pulp mills, reducing unpleasant odors often experienced in communities near sulfur-based mills.

Columbia Pulp plans to sell or use the residual product from pulping, including carbohydrate and lignin residues from the manufacturing process.

“It’s going to have a big impact on the local community,” Begley said, adding that future expansion is “certainly our hope.”

Columbia Pulp’s main office is at 115 E. Main St., Dayton. For more information, visit columbiapulp.net; 509-288-4892.

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