Since the Georgia-Pacific tissue mill closed Dec. 21, 2007, activity on the waterfront has dwindled to a standstill. More than 200 employees left that day. A mere nine remain, tasked with overseeing the final phase of demolition.
“There’s about a half-million square feet of buildings remaining on the site that are designated to be demolished,” said Dick Perry, manager of maintenance and engineering for G-P.
For the past five years, Perry has been in charge of asset recovery, basically removing anything of value before the demolition crew arrived.
Now the demolition crew is here. A team of 15 workers from Staton Companies, based in Eugene, Ore., began the final phase of demolition on May 6. By that time, most of the usable equipment had already been shipped to other G-P facilities and the rest was sold to other mills as far away as Israel and New Zealand, Perry said.
With demolition underway, the Port of Bellingham will assume operation and maintenance of the waterfront site on June 30. To prepare for that day, the port is securing a new source of electricity, since the old industrial power substation is slated to be demolished.
If all goes as planned, the demolition of the tissue mill should be completed by the end of the year, Perry said. But there’s a lot of work to do between now and then.
In order to reduce the cost of the project, the demolition crew is slowly dismantling the buildings, removing all excess debris and separating the concrete from the metal.
“There’s value in the salvage, so if you combine the value of the salvage with the demolition costs, the project is less expensive,” Perry said.
He estimates that about 90 percent of the weight of the remaining buildings will be recycled or sold as scrap, which will help offset approximately $600,000 in project costs. Perry would not disclose the total cost of the project, but with the price of metal rising, the value of the steel beams and miscellaneous metal will provide the most benefit to the project.
The concrete, however, will be set aside and crushed into gravel that can later be used as fill or as a base layer for new roads. Chunks of concrete are fairly useless, but once crushed into gravel, the material becomes valuable, Perry said.
The rest of the materials — ceramics, scrap wood and plasterboard used for office structures— will be hauled away to an appropriate land fill.
Some buildings will stay — for now
In January 2005, G-P entered into an agreement that signed ownership of the site over to the Port of Bellingham and determined which buildings the company was responsible for removing.
In that agreement, the port decided to keep the existing brick structures and explore possibilities of converting them to mixed-use buildings.
Now, as the planning process moves forward, the potential reuse of those buildings is still uncertain, said Jim Darling, executive director for the port.
“As we go through the master planning process we will make that determination,” Darling said. “Will they work in the new layout? Are they economically able to be remodeled? They were put in a long time ago and they weren’t laid out with that in mind.”
In addition to concern about whether the physical location of each building will mesh with the new plans, the quality of each structure is also a concern. Most don’t have steel skeletal structures that connect to outer brick layers, Perry said. Rather, the steel structures are there to support the machinery inside.
The seismic safety of the buildings has yet to be determined, but will be included in the port’s ongoing analysis of potential reuse.
The buildings also use a different type of brick than what is seen around Bellingham.
“They’re not a regular brick like you see on other structures,” Perry said. These ceramic bricks break easily, which makes it difficult to take down a building and reuse the bricks. “You can salvage them, but it’s labor intensive.”
Included on the list of remaining structures the port is responsible for is the digester building, the tallest building on the site at roughly 120 feet, or about 12 stories. It houses nine wood digesters — basically large pressure cookers — that were used to soften the natural glues that hold wood fiber together. The end product of this process was pulp used to make paper.
Each digester consists of a one-inch-thick steel outer layer with three to four inches of brick lining the inside. They stand about 70 feet tall.
Removing the digesters without damaging the building will be a tricky task: “There’s a lot of material in there that has to be taken out,” Perry said. “It can be done but it’s expensive to do. It’s probably $1 million to $2 million to just remove the digesters inside the building before you even start working on the structure itself.”
The end of an era
The original tissue mill was built in 1926 and housed a single paper machine. Throughout the years, that building expanded to hold six paper machines, two of which ran until the mill closed last December.
With that much history stored in the walls, the demolition is hard for Perry.
“It’s sad to see because I know how many thousands of people put effort into this site, and to just tear it all down, there’s some sadness in that,” he said. “Like if you built your own house and had multiple generations in it and then had to tear it down back to the dirt and walk away from it.”
For Perry, the loss of the tissue mill represents the loss of hundreds of jobs that have benefited the community over the last 80 years. These jobs supported families and sent local kids through college, Perry said.
For now, Perry, 63, said he is unsure whether he will retire or continue to work once the demolition is complete. But before that day arrives, he said he hopes to mark one last milestone as a G-P employee: “If our demolition project goes past Nov. 11, then I’ll finish my 40th year at G-P. That’s a nice round number to wrap up career.”
Proposed plan outlining street grid and early development on the site completed.
Public comment and review of “preferred alternative” and environmental impact analysis.
Environmental impact analysis finalized.
Master plan finalized.
Scheduled finish of Georgia-Pacific demolition.