“Is this biomass campus ever going to happen?” is a question I am frequently asked by community members whether in passing at the grocery store, the tavern in Taylorsville, at high school sporting events, or even at work by my Sierra Institute coworkers.
While the short answer is yes, a number of issues have arisen that have led to delays. Below is overview of where we are with site development, and an explanation for why it’s taking so long.
Most Indian Valley residents are familiar with the “sore eyesight” that is the old Louisiana Pacific sawmill property in Crescent Mills. Other than an occasional truck on site hauling around soil and debris, this large industrial land has remained vacant since Louisiana Pacific halted operations in the mid 1980s. Such a landscape is common among rural forested areas of California—the decline of the timber industry at the end of the 20th century led to small sawmill closures up and down the state in communities like those of Plumas County.
A trucking company based in Carson City purchased this site from Louisiana Pacific in the 1990s, but never moved forward with any sort of development. After almost 30 years of no activity, the Sierra Institute has a vision for reuse of the site: a business campus that turns low value wood and biomass into marketable products at a community-scale. The campus will create a local outlet for the abundance of small diameter trees in our forests that need to be removed for reduced fire risk and for overall improved ecological health. A current lack of demand for the material stalls thinning activities, and insufficient infrastructure exists locally to process biomass and timber too small to be sent to local sawmills SPI and Collins Pine.
Several business owners have already expressed interest in locating on site, and the Sierra Institute is working hard to navigate pre-development processes and to obtain the capital needed to get operations going. The effort has developed a higher profile statewide among partnering groups involved with addressing declining forest health in California, and has garnered much support from state and federal agencies seeking to identify solutions for the abundance of biomass in California.
So, after a few years of talk of this vision, why are residents still not seeing any activities on the site as they drive through Crescent Mills?
Contamination and landmines of liability in the soil is why. It is known from preliminary sampling work that minimal levels of arsenic, petroleum, and dioxins/furans remain in the soil from LP’s sawmill operations, such as the practice of spreading oil and incinerator ash on roadways for dust suppression. The amount of contamination identified to date seems to be typical of abandoned sawmill sites, and levels are likely not significant enough to be a public health issue. A cleanup of the site seems feasible as there are several funding sources that can be tapped into to cover the costs of site cleanup as well.
With the California Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) taking the role of the regulatory agency overseeing the cleanup process, a number of steps need to be taken in accordance with state and federal law that ensure the Sierra Institute does not take on liability related to the existing contamination. Additional sampling to fully “characterize the extent of contamination” is one requirement. Once DTSC deems that there is enough data on the contaminants present, results will be used to develop a cleanup plan. This plan needs to be approved by DTSC before an actual remedy can be put into place.
Sierra Institute secured a grant in 2016 from DTSC to fund additional soil and groundwater assessments, and on-the-ground sampling began the first week of February. The assessment work is anticipated to run through summer, with development of a cleanup plan following shortly thereafter.
While the process of site cleanup and liability removal is complex and time consuming, the Sierra Institute is excited for the opportunity to clean up this site with heavy industrial zoning as a means to promote much needed economic development in Indian Valley. We intend to hold public meetings this spring and summer to brief the community on progress and to be able to answer or address any questions or concerns. Until then, feel free to contact program lead Camille Swezy with any questions or concerns at firstname.lastname@example.org.