A private company has announced plans to build a multimillion dollar pulp plant outside of Starbuck in Columbia County.
Columbia Pulp would process wheat straw and alfalfa into pulp for paper products, using a process developed by Phoenix Pulp & Polymer, a Seattle company.
Columbia Pulp CEO John Begley said the plant would employ 130 full-time workers who would be paid $20 to $25 per hour. The plant would be the first commercial scale facility using straw to make pulp, he said.
The company has acquired options for 449 acres of industrial-zoned land along Highway 261 west of Starbuck and plans to build the 150,000-square-foot facility on a 40 acre area near the Lyons Ferry Marina. The remaining land will be used for the application of wastewater from the plant, and could eventually grow wheat for straw as well.
The plant would require 700 tons of straw per day, drawing its supply from farms within a 75 mile radius — an area that extends north to Colfax, southwest to Walla Walla and Milton-Freewater and east to the Idaho border. According to Begley, Eastern Washington burns roughly one million tons of straw per year following wheat harvest, so the plant’s annual need could significantly reduce related air pollution from the smoke.
Columbia Pulp is currently securing permits and water rights, and anticipates beginning construction in the fall of 2014, with plant operations starting up after the 2015 wheat harvest. Begley said the plant is a multiphase project that could eventually manufacture and sell its own paper products, employing additional workers.
During his presentation to Columbia County commissioners, Begley listed several advantages of straw pulp over pulp produced with wood fiber. Straw can be bought for a tenth of the price of wood pulp, and the straw pulp process uses significantly less water, roughly 600,000 gallons per day at the plant, versus 7 million for a paper pulp plant of the same size.
Straw pulp also does not use sulfur in processing, avoiding the smell normally associated with wood pulp plants.
The majority of paper pulp in the Northwest is softwood, a product with longer fibers that’s often used to provide strength in packaging products. The hardwood-grade pulp made from straw has shorter fibers that make it better suited to products like paper or filler material in packaging.
Because of the Northwest’s abundance of softwood-producing coniferous trees, Begley said hardwood-grade pulp is a needed product.
“Hardwood is actually of value here. There is a hardwood shortage in the Northwest,” he said.
Kim Lyonnais, Columbia County planner, said his initial meetings with the Department of Ecology, Department of Transportation and other regulatory agencies suggested a positive outlook for the plant. Ecology representatives were supportive of a reduction in straw burning, and Lyonnais said state agencies feel the plant is well-suited to the property on Highway 261.
“This is the right spot. Everything works there,” said Lyonnais.
Begley said the site was chosen for its industrial zoning, proximity to a natural gas line and access to good road transportation.
Members of the county’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy discussed the possible impacts of the plant at their annual meeting on Wednesday, following a presentation from Columbia Pulp.
Housing for workers dominated the conversation, as the county currently has a large number of houses for sale, but few rentals available. Several people raised concerns that an influx of workers could overwhelm Starbuck, with a current population just under 130 people.
The possibility of future industrial development in the area was also discussed, as a significant portion of the land around the proposed plant site is also zoned industrial.
“Something like Columbia Pulp is going to be a game-changer in our community,” said Dayton Chamber Director Brad McMasters.
Rachel Alexander can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 509-526-8363.