Millions approved for Mary’s River Lumber flood authority project

“Fantastic. Great news,” said Mary’s River Lumber President Brad Kirkbride Thursday afternoon when asked about the shift of $4 million in Chehalis River Basin Flood Authority funds to address flood threats to its mill on the Chehalis River at Montesano.

The Flood Authority board, meeting Thursday morning on a conference call open to the public, voted to shift $4 million from three projects still in the early stages of development. In all, the project will cost $6 million and $2 million had already been budgeted. Affected were Mill Creek dam repair in Cosmopolis, Wishkah Road flood mitigation and Satsop River floodplain work. Flood Authority leaders say those three projects will still go forward and in fact not all funding for the three was diverted. Some was left for design, engineering and other pre-construction costs. But pre-construction work for the Mary’s River project is already done and work can go ahead this winter.

Most authority members favored the shift because it could save jobs, as well as show the Legislature that the authority, criticized in the past for inaction, could pool together funding and get projects done. The Flood Authority rules require a unanimous vote from the representatives of 12 governmental agencies from Grays Harbor, Thurston and Lewis counties in the Chehalis Basin.

The fund shift vote was nearly derailed by authority member Jim Cook, a city councilman from Aberdeen. Despite repeated assurances by several authority members, including Chairwoman Vickie Raines, who proposed the diversion, several times during the meeting Cook appeared ready to vote no.

The project could help protect the jobs of 65 to 70 workers at the mill, which can employ 120 at full capacity. Sawmill operations have yet to be restored since a fire destroyed part of that operation in 2012. While he said Thursday’s funding was “very helpful,” Kirkbride added “no final decision has been made” about rebuilding the sawmill, a “long process” that depends in part on “fiber availability” and market forces.

All processes involving kilns, the planer and the molder, will continue, Kirkbride said. The funding “bodes well for that industrial site,” but he would not say when or if the rest of the 120 jobs or sawmill operations might be restored.

Montesano Mayor Ken Estes, who remained silent until after the vote, thanked the authority for shifting the funding to the mill project as he favored.

Debate was heated during the call, when several members, particularly Grays Harbor County Commissioner Wes Cormier, became audibly annoyed with what he viewed as Cook’s mis-characterization of a study. According to Cormier, Cook misquoted the study. Cormier read a passage from the study, saying “you bet, I am correct.”

Cook kept insisting that the Mary’s River Lumber project was about “business endeavors” and that he was more concerned about “human life” of the residents near the Wishkah Road, who are frequently flooded out.

J. Vanderstoep, an alternate filling in for Dolores Lee of Pe Ell, said, “We are three months from flood season. If the (money) stay(s) in Cosi, Wishkah, Satsop, nothing would happen on the ground. On the other hand, if money goes into the Mary’s River project mill,” jobs would be saved “right now, this November and December. Obviously, it’s a wise move.”

Raines, Cormier, Ron Averill of Centralia, Arnold Haberstroh of Chehalis and Alan Vanell of Bucoda all spoke in favor of the diversion. Raines asserted that the funding would likely by replaced since Sen. Jim Hargrove, and Reps. Brian Blake and Steve Tharinger, all Democrats, are all committed to advocate for that funding to be replaced to complete the three projects.

All three projects still have money left in their coffers to pursue design, permitting and other pre-construction processes. The Wishkah Road project, still funded with $690,000, is now on the path of a more permanent solution rather than a temporary raising of the road, which was authorized at last month’s meeting. That vote was rescinded.

Raines went through the proposal piece-by-piece in an effort to assuage Cook’s concerns and encourage consensus. Cook was still unconvinced. Others spoke at length.

“I hear what you are saying. (We) are not just protecting mill families,” said Haberstroh of Centralia. “This is about doing the best for the most.”

Facilitator Jim Kramer tried restating the explanation in several ways, several times.

Cook refused to relent until two residents of the Wishkah Valley, who were invited to speak up as the controversy continued, stated their support for the funding shift.

Volunteer firefighter and resident Al Smith said he concurred with “Ron (Averill) and Arnold (Haberstroh), and other board members and also Wes.” It is time to “move forward,” he said, adding “I applaud the authority for this.”

Frank Kirsch, also one of the main citizen proponents of the Wishkah road project, said, “I am supportive of it,” adding he was “confident” necessary funding would be found to do all of it. He hopes “we can get the engineers on board with the final design and permitting” for the Wishkah Road project.

When residents directly affected by the switch agreed with 10 other authority members present, Cook relented and did not object to the consensus vote, which then passed unanimously.

The vote also pleased Estes, who also saluted the approval of a small part of the Montesano package which aims to prevent the local wastewater treatment plant from over-topping, sending raw sewage downstream.

Estes has been concerned the lumber mill would be moved without the improvements. Mary’s Lumber President Kirkbride said that was “just rumor I can’t substantiate” though he did add that making it more secure was part of what they were looking at while evaluating the mill’s future, with an eye to making it be “an industrial site free of issues.”

The Mary’s River project includes final design, permitting and construction of a flood water passage as well as protection of the shoreline by means of a sheet pile wall, which will be driven down through asphalt, nearly 60 feet deep in the ground close to the river’s edge to keep the banks from eroding and water from washing away the mill.

All $28.2 million worth of Flood Authority projects authorized by the Legislature this summer can now proceed under a previous vote by the authority, it was confirmed Thursday, despite earlier confusion about whether state requirements were satisfied.

In another major action, Edna Fund of Lewis County volunteered that her county pay more, or 64 percent of the costs, for annual maintenance of a flood warning system created in 2012 to provide information for residents, businesses and governments. The new way of calculating costs reduces the share born by Grays Harbor County (22 percent) and Thurston County (14 percent). County governments can then ask for reimbursement from cities.

The change was proposed to be more equitable.

Member Fund and Chairwoman Raines were praised for their leadership. The next meeting, to be held in Lewis County, is slated for the third Thursday in September.