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Columbia County pulp mill suspends production, lays off many

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Columbia County’s second largest employer suspended operations this week and laid off a majority of its staff.

Columbia Pulp has stopped its pulp mill operations at Lyons Ferry because of a disruption in its supply chain and concerns about not being able to follow COVID-19 precautions, the company announced Wednesday morning.

The disruption of the first straw pulp mill of its kind in North America comes just five months after the company began production.

According to a written statement, the company has laid off most of its employees and kept a small group on board. Columbia Pulp’s board of directors made the decision Saturday and shutdown procedures began Sunday. Operations eventually stopped completely Tuesday.

“After careful deliberation and my formal recommendation, the board of managers has elected to enact an orderly and temporary suspension of operations at the Lyons Ferry facility,” CEO John Begley said in a prepared statement. “These are extraordinary times and the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic are unprecedented. ... Despite the incredible efforts of our employees and dedicated vendors, the board has determined that following the state of Washington’s ‘Stay at Home, Stay Safe’ guidance is the best course of action at this time.”

Columbia Pulp employs about 100 people in Columbia County between the Lyons Ferry plant and its Dayton office. Upon opening it became the second largest employer in the county.

Initially, according to the statement, Columbia Pulp assumed it could continue to operate under the mandate, but its leaders had begun plans on how to scale back operations anyway.

As time went on, it became apparent that the disruption in its supply chain and “concern” mounting among its workforce would not lend to operations continuing.

According to the statement, Columbia Pulp “will monitor the pandemic that is impacting not only Washington state but the global pulp and paper market in which the company operates.”

The company is also looking for government assistance for its laid off employees. The board plans to restart the mill as soon as it’s safe and feasible, according to the statement.

Columbia Pulp produces wheat pulp products such as containers, tissues and towels and dubs itself “North America’s first tree-free pulp mill.” It processes about 250,000 tons of wheat pulp yearly.

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Jedidiah Maynes can be reached at jedidiahmaynes@wwub.com or 509-526-8318.

Jedidiah Maynes is the managing editor of Walla Walla Lifestyles magazine. He also writes about business news in the Valley and covers a variety of others topics on occasion. He enjoys making music and puns.