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Blue Heron Paper Mill cleanup uses compost, gardens to treat contaminated water

Three floors under the closed Blue Heron paper mill, just above the Willamette’s summer waterline, ground and storm water trickle out of the darkness toward the river. The stream, carrying metals and other pollutants absorbed from the mill’s galvanized roofs and old piping, needs to be treated before it returns to the ecosystem.
Jeffrey Pettey and his company, Gullywasher, are building a 6-foot wall of compost to do just that.
The Blue Heron mill shut down in 2011 after more than 100 years of continual operation, putting 175 people out of work. NRI Global Inc., a Canadian private-investment firm, acquired the mill’s equipment for $5.7 million plus about $1.6 million for site clean-up and maintenance.
Mo Darwish, NRI’s project manager for the site, expects their work and Pettey’s to be completed within the month. In total, they’ve shipped out about 7,000 tons of scrap and machinery.
The compost Pettey uses looks like playground tanbark — he found a chewed up Lego in one batch. But this bark has cooked in compost for six months, picking up microbes and fraying the wood to better catch larger waste particles. At the mill, the Gullywasher crew packs it into green mesh composting “socks” designed to absorb heavy metals. These are stacked, layer by layer, into metal cages so that the dirty water hits the compost first, then washes through a second layer of drainage rocks. Stripped of zinc, copper and any other contaminants, the water runs straight down the bank and into the Willamette.
In excess, zinc and copper are toxic to salmon, with effects ranging from stunting growth to damaging the neural system.
Pettey said this system is a first for industrial wastewater cleanup. A main advantage is that it requires far less electricity and manpower than the current process, which pumps the affected water — with some stops in between — to a lagoon in West Linn. Darwish said the compost system will save money for the land’s trustees and make the clean-up more environmentally friendly.
The compost walls will last about five years, with cleaning required only after major floods. And Pettey is redesigning the compost cages to make them easier to maintain.
“I love doing this stuff. This is adventure,” he said. “Problems like this, it really does improve the quality of life.”
Frank Shields, the lab director for the organics division of Watsonville, Calif. Control Laboratories Inc., helped test the compost socks, made by Filtrexx International, LLC, an Ohio company.
“It’s excellent at removing particulate matter, probably some of the best media for doing that,” he said.
Shields expressed some doubt about the efficacy of the system in removing enough of the dissolved metals, but said the assessment is highly dependent on individual sites and the make-up of the compost.
Aboveground, Pettey is installing 30 industrial rainwater gardens to clean water that collects zinc from the roofs, walls and tire dust, and copper from piping and brakes. The white boxes are stacked filtration system, with sedges and rushes on top, followed by about two feet of compost and sand, down to a layer of drainage rocks and ending with a PVC piping system.
In a report released in February, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality showed that stormwater systems reduced copper and zinc concentrations by 65 and 83 percent respectively.
The mill’s buildings and land are still being auctioned off. In April, Clackamas County’s Water Environment Services purchased Blue Heron’s West Linn property for $1.75 million. A California company, Eclipse Development Group, made a $4.1 million offer for the 23-acre Oregon City property in June, and the state legislature approved $5 million in lottery-backed bonds to aid development in July.

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