Almost two years ago, a devastating fire at Mary’s River Lumber in Montesano left its saw mill in ashes and a charred frame. Although repairs were made to other aspects of the mill, the saw mill was never rebuilt, costing the community dozens of jobs.
Those are jobs Montesano Mayor Ken Estes wants to see come back.
“But that wasn’t going to happen until we resolved this flooding issue, until we protected this land from an encroaching Chehalis River that was aimed right at this mill like a fire hose,” Estes said. “What business in their right mind would spend millions of dollars on a brand-new mill when it could be gone in a few years?”
Work is now under way to shore up the shoreline, utilizing a grant from the state via the Chehalis Basin Flood Authority.
“My hope is not only do we save the jobs here, but the company builds its mill and we bring the jobs back,” Estes said.
Stellar J. Corp just finished a construction project at the city’s wastewater treatment plant to place giant interlocking vinyl boards to serve as a flood barrier between the plant and the nearby rivers. Estes says that the protection goes six inches higher than a 500-year flood event.
While the vinyl sheets came from Georgia, larger metal steel sheets are being placed around Mary’s River Lumber, specially built from a plant in Luxembourg.
Public Works Director Rocky Howard said that the Luxemburg plant was the only facility available that could build the custom-made sheets tall enough and to the specific requirements to make them interlocking.
Instead of using a pounding device to get the wall into the ground, construction crews are vibrating the walls into the ground using specialized heavy equipment. The result makes for a much quieter workplace — “and no residential complaints,” quips Howard. “The pounding sound might have been heard for miles.”
Howard says the Mary’s River project should continue until September.
Stellar J had the low combined bid for both flood-protection projects at a little over $4.6 million. As it turns out, the price is a bit of a bargain compared to what it could have been to fix the issues along the river. A 2012 project estimate provided to the Flood Authority had said it may cost upward of $14 million to fix the problem.
The city of Montesano is involved, not just because city officials want to secure a major employer for the city, but because the city actually owns the land where Mary’s River sits. The company has a long-term lease.
It’s been a rocky road for Mary’s River and whether they would even stay at the site.
Back in 2009, Mary’s River Lumber was actually looking to leave the city entirely, citing concerns about an increase in flooding on the property and continued erosion.
Instead, the company moved just part of its shipping operations to an industrial park near Elma, facilitated by a $225,000 grant by the county commissioners to improve the water line in the area. The company purchased about 10 acres near Schouweiler Road when it moved part of its shipping operations there.
Then, the fire hit the mill in August of 2012. Fire Chief Corey Rux says that the fire burned so hot and there was so much debris at the site that a specific cause of the fire is still not known today. The Fire Department left the cause as undetermined .
Estes had already been working on a flood-protection plan for the site even before the fire, but intensified his lobbying efforts.
“We need this project or Mary’s River may very well just leave us,” Estes told the Flood Authority last year at a meeting in Montesano. “This business hinges on this project being successful.”
Estes, along with Chehalis Basin Flood Authority Chairwoman Vickie Raines, were able to convince other Flood Authority members to delay work on several projects and divert those funds to the Mary’s River project in an effort to fund one large project that had the potential to retain and attract jobs.
Although the current Flood Authority project will essentially place “armor” on the banks of the Chehalis River to protect the mill and the land, a feasibility study recommended one other approach that could still be done to help resolve even future issues.
The isthmus in the river at the site was once 800 yards wide in 1994, and today it’s 100 yards or less wide. Should that area erode, the isthmus could end up creating a small island in the middle of the river — and change the way the water reflects on the nearby shorelines.
“Based on the review of historic aerial photographs, it is apparent that the . . . active channel upstream of the lumber mill is highly dynamic and has changed significantly within the last 58 years,” according to a technical memo written last fall by Engineer Steve Schmitz for the city of Montesano. “If no action is taken, the observed pattern of channel migration can be expected to continue in the future, resulting in the cutoff of the meander immediately upstream of the lumber mill. As observed from the historic photos, large changes in the channel bank alignment tend to occur as the result of large flood events, such as the 1996 and 2007 floods.”
Besides the wall, Schmitz suggested reopening a relic river channel once used by the Chehalis River.
“Construction of this alternative would result in the removal of approximately 450,000 cubic yards of material,” Schmitz wrote. “Removal of such a large quantity of material may prove problematic as access to the site is limited. The area designated for the proposed channel is also privately owned property. Through discussions with the property owner, it is apparent that the property could be purchased, but the location of the proposed channel may be a point of contention. The relic channel currently functions as a productive tidal marsh and provides valuable salmonid rearing habitat. Loss of this habitat, approximately five acres, would require remediation and increases potential objections from permitting agencies and local stakeholders.”
Instead of reopening the entire relic channel, Schmitz also suggested just reopening “a small high-flow channel to connect the main steam of the river to the relic river channel” and provided a potential cost estimate for the project at $1.2 million. No cost estimate was provided for the complete re-opening of the relic channel.
“This solution would divert a portion of high flows through a created wetland area and channel at the eastern end of the current relic channel,” he writes. “Construction of this alternative would result in the removal of approximately 80,000 cubic yards of material. Over time, the high flow channel may eventually lead to a cut through occurring at this location. As in the previous alternative this property is privately owned and would require purchasing. Furthermore, it is not currently possible to estimate the reduction in erosion at the meander due to the high-flow bypass. This would require installation of protection measures adjacent to the mill to ensure an adequate level of protection.”
Estes said he would still like to see this issue pursued, but it would take action and support of the county commissioners — as well as plenty of federal and state permits to basically change the direction of a river.
“I’m not sure if it will ever happen,” Estes said. “But, I’m happy we’re doing something now to at least protect the property.”