ILWACO, Wash. — In June, newly elected Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz promised local leaders she would bring economic opportunities to rural Washington. This week, she came back to Pacific County to deliver the goods.
During an event Monday at the boatyard in the Port of Ilwaco, Franz announced a $3.5 million package of state Department of Natural Resources-sponsored projects that could create as many as 64 new jobs and help preserve many more.
The package includes $950,000 to build a derelict vessel deconstruction and recycling facility at the port, $1.5 million to help reopen an alder sawmill in Raymond and more than $1 million for research on how to stop burrowing shrimp from destroying oyster beds.
The projects are part of Franz’s “Rural Communities Partnership Initiative,” an effort to help leaders in rural areas with economic development. The planned projects will be carried out in collaboration with local leaders, other public agencies, and, in some cases, private companies.
In a brief speech, state Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview, said he was initially skeptical when Franz, who leads the state Department of Natural Resources, promised to help Pacific County.
“I’m sorry to say that,” Takko said. “This time, I think we’ve really got someone who cares about the rural areas.”
The New Pacific Hardwoods mill in Raymond’s Port of Willapa Harbor closed in 2017. Now, the state plans to invest $1.5 million to retrofit and reopen the alder sawmill. During the first phase of the project, the state will provide $553,000 to help with startup costs, $500,000 for a new small log system and $345,000 to debt-secure the mill.
In the second phase, the state will provide a $100,000 grant to help port officials and the Evergreen State College Center for Sustainable Infrastructure research the possibility of starting an energy innovation district.
“Essentially, an energy innovation district allows companies to reduce energy costs and energy waste by sharing energy,” Department of Natural Resources spokesman Carlo Davis explained. The facilities can also help companies find ways to use one another’s waste streams to create new products.
“Clustering related industry together makes this sharing possible,” he said.
The Department of Natural Resources estimates the mill, which is slated to open in 2019, could make about $9.5 million in log purchases annually. It would create about 49 jobs and around $2.1 million in wages and generate $98,000 in taxes annually, according to state estimates.
An estimated 25 percent of all U.S. oysters are grown in the region, making the shellfish industry a critical part of the local economy. However, the continued proliferation of burrowing shrimp — often called “ghost shrimp” — is rapidly turning prime oyster-growing land into a muddy wasteland. The shrimp soften the ground, making it impossible for oysters to grow.
The Washington Department of Ecology has been considering whether to let oyster growers spray the shrimp with pesticide, but have been widely expected to decline to issue a permit. The prospect this could begin putting Willapa oyster operations out of business set off a behind-the-scenes scramble at the just-concluded legislative session to find viable alternatives to spraying.
Shellfish growers and researchers have already tried dozens of strategies for checking shrimp populations with little success.
Starting this year, the $1 million investment will pay for research on new shrimp-control techniques. It will also help the Department of Natural Resources, which manages a significant amount of acreage in Willapa Bay, identify unused tidelands that could be made available to affected oyster farmers.
Most of the money — $950,000 — comes from the state Legislature’s supplemental budget. The Department of Natural Resources is contributing $65,000 and the Department of Agriculture is chipping in $50,000. The work will be carried out by state staff and the University of Washington Sea Grant research program with assistance from local oyster growers.
“There’s no silver bullet here,” Franz said in a press release. “It’s a mucky situation but, as the manager of significant tidelands in the area and a landlord for many lessees, we’re wading in. We’ve got to explore all options — there are too many livelihoods at risk and communities on the brink not to.”
Ken Wiegardt, president of the Willapa Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association, expressed appreciation for the state’s new emphasis on helping.
“The shellfish industry is the largest private employer in rural Pacific County,” Wiegardt said. “Dramatic increases in burrowing shrimp populations threaten the environment and economies in southwest Washington. This new partnership has the potential to benefit the many residents of Grays Harbor and Pacific County whose livelihoods depend on these jobs.”
Shipbreaking in Ilwaco
By 2020, the Port of Ilwaco could be home to a new shipbreaking facility that would specialize in dismantling and disposing of derelict vessels. In the recently-approved supplemental budget, the Legislature committed $950,000 for the derelict vessel facility and other work in the port. The investment includes $600,000 for building an enclosed deconstruction facility, $250,000 to replace the port’s stormwater system and $100,000 for paving and regrading work that will help protect water quality.
According to Port Manager Guy Glenn Jr., the port is in talks with a private partner, West Coast Vessel Recycling, LLC. The state Department of Ecology, Washington Public Ports Association and the Association of Washington Cities’ Center for Quality Communities would also be involved in the project.
According to the Department of Natural Resources, there are around 150 vessels in the state that are candidates for recycling. The facility would create an estimated 15 jobs.
Franz said the state has a “tremendous” problem with derelict boats. The new facility, she said, would be an example of “taking a challenge and turning it into an opportunity” that would benefit the local economy and the environment.