STARBUCK — Construction of the long-awaited Columbia Pulp mill near Lyons Ferry in northern Columbia County will finally begin next month, its chief executive said.
All financing for the project, a lack of which has prevented construction for years, is now secured, CEO John Begley announced this morning.
Groundbreaking will begin in a few weeks, and the $184 million mill should be ready for operation in late 2018. Passers-by should see buildings going up this fall, he said.
This news was music to Port of Columbia Manager Jennie Dickinson’s ears.
“Woohoo!” she wrote in an email to media after Columbia Pulp issued its news release.
“The completion of financing for the plant is wonderful news for Columbia County — new jobs, additional tax base, and increased economic activity,” Dickinson wrote in a separate email to the Union-Bulletin.
Begley confirmed that the business will start with five or six employees in August and eventually build up to 90 full-time employees by startup. Hiring for Columbia Pulp will be handled by WorkSource in Walla Walla.
“Economic development is a long game,” Dickinson wrote. “It’s been over 10 years since my first contact with the gentleman who developed the process of turning straw into pulp. Today we can celebrate.”
It has, as Dickinson said, been a decade since word began circulating in Dayton and surrounding communities that entrepreneurs were looking at property in Columbia County for construction of the mill, the first in North America to produce market pulp for papermaking without using trees.
The mill was granted its building permit from the county last June. And $134 million in tax-exempt municipal solid-waste bonds from the Washington Economic Development Finance Authority were authorized in 2015.
But private equity was needed as well, and developers hit a snag at the end of 2016 when key investors pulled out because of the uncertain bond market following the presidential election.
Seven months have now passed, and the path ahead is finally clear.
The solid-waste bonds were offered by Goldman, Sachs & Co. of New York. And Columbia Ventures Corporation of Vancouver, Wash., has agreed to be the lead private investor with $36 million in equity financing, according to the news release.
Columbia Ventures has previously invested in international aluminum manufacturing as well as telecommunications around the globe, including Walla Walla-based PocketiNet.
“Columbia Pulp will provide family wage jobs in a rural part of our state while manufacturing an innovative product using surplus resources in an environmentally sensitive process,” Columbia Ventures CEO Kenneth Peterson said, adding he is excited to be involved in implementing the vision of founders Mark Lewis and Dr. William McKean.
The facility, to be erected on 449 acres of mixed industrial and pasture land purchased from the Dickinson family along the Snake River, will convert wheat straw and seed-alfalfa straw into pulp using a proprietary process developed by Sustainable Fibers Technology.
The process, according to Begley, “produces market pulp equal to the quality of hardwood pulp, while requiring less capital investment and utilizing less energy, water and chemicals compared to traditional pulping methods.”
The mill is expected to produce 149,000 tons per year of market pulp and 95,000 tons per year of a carbohydrate-lignin co-product.
Straw from wheat and alfalfa farmers within 75 miles of the site will be used for the pulping, Begley said. And contracts for the straw purchases are already in place.