The last year on the Twin Harbors has been rocky, but 2012 also brought stories of renewal and triumph to our gritty communities.
An attack at the County Courthouse stunned us all, as did Montesano’s storybook — and literal — rise from the ashes to win a state football title. While unemployment remained at historically high levels, mills like Harbor Paper and Hoquiam Plywood re-opened, signaling a light at the end of the economic tunnel. Some economic possibilities brought controversy — namely talk of coal and oil exporting at the Port of Grays Harbor.
The year also brought historic change to county government, as, for the first time in years, a Republican majority is poised to take over the County Commission after a stunning election.
As always, the following stories are just a sampling, but we felt they had the farthest reach. So, here are the year’s top 10 stories, as voted on by The Daily World staff.
1. Courthouse shooting
The attacks at the historic Grays Harbor County Courthouse have left a reverberating impact all over the county — highlighting the need for courthouse security and showing remarkable feats of courage by the survivors.
On March 9, Steven D. Kravetz walked into the courthouse and was reportedly acting oddly. County employees called the Sheriff’s Office to check on him. As soon as Deputy Polly Davin asked Kravetz for information, he attacked her with a knife. Superior Court Judge Dave Edwards saw what was happening and pulled Kravetz off her, only to be stabbed himself in the neck. After Davin drew her weapon, Kravetz got control of it in the struggle then shot her and fled out the door. After a massive manhunt that went on for more than a day, he was found and taken into custody. In 2013, he will stand trial for attempted second-degree murder and assault. Edwards, and fellow county employees Rita Zastrow and Linda Foster were nominated by Davin and received the Governor’s Lifesaving Award for helping control a dangerous situation.
Within days, the Superior Court judges ordered security be put in place — putting a spotlight on a previous lawsuit between the judges and the county commissioners. Although the dispute had been largely over budgetary matters, the issue of security was also included in the suit and took on a new life. Soon, metal detectors, an X-ray machine, security screeners and special courthouse deputies were all hired. Security was also upgraded at Grays Harbor District Court, Hoquiam Municipal Court and Aberdeen Municipal Court and security became a hot topic in other counties without security in place, including Clallam County.
2. Montesano rises from the ashes
On Sept. 14, Montesano High School’s football team lost to Hoquiam, 41-14. Two days later, the Rottle Field grandstand at the high school was destroyed by fire.
The Bulldogs, however, dramatically rose from the ashes to capture the state 1A football championship in early December.
Montesano finished the season with 11 consecutive victories. Unranked entering the state playoffs, the Bulldogs knocked off three previously unbeaten teams in postseason play.
After upending top-ranked King’s in the quarterfinals at Aberdeen’s Stewart Field, the Bulldogs beat Mount Baker in the semifinals to earn a crack at second-ranked Royal in the state championship game at the Tacoma Dome.
Playing in front of a huge home-town contingent, Montesano trailed 21-10 early in the second quarter. But quarterback Matthew Jensen’s 42-yard touchdown pass to Richard Smith on the final play of the first half turned the tide and ignited the Bulldogs to a 43-28 victory.
Jensen, the son of head coach Terry Jensen, passed for 269 yards and two touchdowns, while Elliot Mendenhall added touchdown runs of 41 and 82 yards.
3. Harbor Paper mill opens
After several starts and stops, Harbor Paper finally had its official reopening on Oct. 29 — bringing with it, the promise of new jobs and hope for a revitalized Harbor.
For years, residents watched jobs leave the area as the timber industry continued to contract and the nation’s economy faltered. Another casualty of this decline was Grays Harbor Paper, which shut down in May 2011 after sluggish sales and poor market conditions doomed the factory, resulting in the lay off of more than 200 people. Facing millions of dollars in secured and unsecured debts, the company’s assets were assigned by Grays Harbor Superior Court to a receiver to try to sell the assets and recoup as much money as possible for those who were still owed.
In August, Judge Gordon Godfrey approved the sale of the mill to Harbor Paper LLC for $3.66 million. Harbor Paper LLC is owned by Elliott Rust Holdings, LLC. The holdings company, in turn, is owned by just one man — Cesar Scolari of Gig Harbor. The two worked out an arrangement with financier Craft3, which used the small business credit initiative through the state Department of Commerce to leverage a line of credit to purchase the mill. In a separate sales agreement that closed at the same time, the Grays Harbor PUD sold its interest in three biomass turbines at the mill for $540,000.
The company is a bit leaner now — 176 employees instead of about 230 when the mill closed last year. The primary product the mill sells is “Harbor 100,” a brand of 100 percent recycled paper that was bought by the City of Seattle, Nike, REI, the Seattle Mariners, the World Bank and many others.
For the first time in about 80 years, Republicans are in the majority on the Grays Harbor Board of County Commissioners.
Republican Wes Cormier, along with Democrat Frank Gordon, will have their ceremonial swearing-in on Jan. 7.
Cormier, along with new chairman Herb Welch, will make up the Republican majority.
Cormier defeated Democrat Terry Willis in the General Election and Gordon beat out fellow Democrat Mike Wilson in the primary election. Willis and Wilson become the third incumbents in two years to lose a seat on the commission, leaving a board with a relatively sharp learning curve. Welch is the senior commissioner, just two years into his first term.
In other election news of the past year, Congressman Norm Dicks retired from office after 36 years. The voters in the 6th Congressional District chose fellow Democrat Derek Kilmer, a state senator from Gig Harbor with roots in Port Angeles. He’ll be sworn in on Jan. 3.
5. Jobless on the Harbors
There was some positive news in the form of a reopened Grays Harbor Paper mill, but overall, Grays Harbor County spent a year among the counties battling the highest unemployment in the state. In June, July and September, the rate was the highest in the state.
When the state began to show signs of recovery in June with an 8.4 unemployment rate, Grays Harbor still had the worst jobless numbers at 13.7 percent and has been with double digit unemployment since 2008.
The numbers continued to rise even though extended benefits were eliminated for thousands of unemployed people across the state.
But with Harbor Paper ramping back up to full production along with Hoquiam Plywood, and with continued growth from Port of Grays Harbor tenants, employment levels began to show signs of genuine improvement through the fall.
In October, unemployment in the county fell to 11.3 percent, according to the state Employment Security Department. In October 2011, unemployment was 12.4 percent for the county.
Pacific County also saw unemployment edge slightly downward to just over 10 percent this past fall.
6. Pontoons deal with adversity
The pontoon construction project in Aberdeen has not proven to be the giant local job generator for the Harbor that community leaders predicted in the months and years before construction ever started.
Roughly half of the workers at the job site are from the area, the contractor has said. Depending on the month, there could be 50 people at the site or 400. Plus, the pontoon construction process has met with adversity. Tiny cracks were found in the concrete, missing rebar pieces and talk of extending the process half a year longer than first predicted.
A special, independent panel and a third party review have been called upon to ensure the pontoons remain sound and to help fix the problem as the next cycle of pontoons are under way now. The construction project at the mouth of the Chehalis River is building the pontoons to keep the new bridge over Lake Washington floating. What is certain is that the process to float out the six pontoons this past summer went without a hitch, traveling from Aberdeen north along the coast and around the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Ballard locks without a problem.
7. (Tie) Mary’s River Lumber burns
On Aug. 25, the Mary’s River Lumber mill in Montesano burned to the ground in an intense blaze. The cause was ruled undetermined by both Montesano Fire investigators and insurance investigators. The other buildings on the site remained operational due to the hard work of more than 35 firefighters from five jursidictions, and the company’s Corvalis, Ore. owners have pledged to rebuild the mill on the same site.
General manager Terry Smith said after the fire the company hoped to have about 60 people back to work, more than half its full staff. As the year drew to a close Smith reported they had done better than that, with 76 employees working at the site. The owners hope to have a new mill operational sometime in 2013.
7. (Tie) Tsunami debris arriving
The flotsam started inundating the coast in the early spring and by June huge pieces of Japanese tsunami debris were found from southern Oregon to beaches in British Columbia.
Gov. Chris Gregoire came to Ocean Shores in June to ask for federal help in cleaning up the debris coming from the March 2011 Japan tsunami, and that led to a task force involving several state agencies and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In Pacific County, the discovery of a 20-foot boat at Cape Disappointment State Park brought new concerns of invasive species being brought over in the debris.
In the summer, Gregoire and the state Department of Ecology mobilized Washington Conservation Corps crews, which collected enough material to fill the beds of 70 pickup trucks while cleaning up marine debris along 57 miles of coastal beaches in southwest Washington.
The crews removed debris from Cape Disappointment north to Moclips.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell also provided key help and has been pushing NOAA for a better response plan. Just last week, a dock with Japanese writing on it drifted ashore near LaPush, prompting a team to hike into the remote location to test it for any possible invasive species or other potential health problems, such as radiation.
As of Dec. 13, NOAA had received approximately 1,432 official debris reports, of which 17 have been confirmed as definite tsunami debris.
In addition to pushing for a debris removal plan, Cantwell also is working to secure federal support for cleanup. On Dec. 10, Cantwell joined five other senators in a bipartisan request for a $20 million federal investment for debris removal in a letter to the chair and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Appropriations.
The government of Japan estimated that the tsunami swept about 5 million tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean and that about 70 percent sank quickly. The remaining 1.5 million tons dispersed far across the North Pacific Ocean in an area roughly three times the size of the lower 48 states.
9. Hoquiam Plywood re-opens
In May, Hoquiam Plywood re-opened a year after the mill closed its doors. The formerly employee-owned manufacturing company was purchased by California-based Pacific States Industries, which re-hired many former workers.
The mill has shuttered and restarted several times in recent years as the home-building segment of the economy struggled nationwide. About 60 employees and managers were retained. The Hoquiam City Council helped out by allowing the company to buy part of an alley running through the property which had served as a right-of-way for the railroad, and Mayor Jack Durney credited Greater Grays Harbor Inc. with connecting the buyers with the resources to re-open the business.
10. Coal and oil talk at the Port
Fueled by record growth at its marine terminals and improvements in rail service, the Port of Grays Harbor drew interest in 2012 from several companies seeking new locations to ship coal and oil.
Just as a preliminary review of Port facilities for coal ended with no new plans in August, the Port ended the year with two ongoing separate efforts to look at the Port as an export facility for crude oil.
In August, the RailAmerica Co. told Port commissioners it had abandoned any current plans to construct a coal storage and export facility at Terminal 3 near Bowerman Basin in Hoquiam.
The railroad first entered into an access agreement with the Port on Jan. 11, 2011, and received three extensions to the original agreement before abandoning the idea.
RailAmerica had said it was interested in possibly shipping 5 million tons of coal annually from the Powder River Basin of Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, primarily overseas to China.
An anti-coal group called Citizens for a Clean Harbor has opposed any use of the terminal for coal shipments and raised the issue of possible health effects and environmental impact.
Members of that group now say they have new concerns about potential plans to ship crude oil produced in North Dakota and other North American fields via rail and sea through Port facilities.
One existing Port tenant, Westway Terminals, already has applied for a permit (with the City of Hoquiam as the lead agency), and the company said in its application that it hopes to begin exporting crude oil from rail to ship by November 2013.
Another company, US Development Group, has been studying Terminal 3 since September and will likely decide on the site early next year.
The company formed Grays Harbor Rail Terminal LLC and entered into an access agreement on Sept. 11 with the Port to “conduct certain feasibility studies” at the site for a “train/marine crude oil terminal.”