Expensive project could be “a very big deal” in terms of economic impact in sparsely populated Columbia County, where nearby farms generate 4 million tons of unused wheat straw annually. Also, OfferUp’s app embroiled in Florida robberies.

Share story

Amid the rolling wheat fields of the Palouse, construction is expected to start next month on something not seen in Washington state in years: a new pulp mill.

But this $184 million project in Southeast Washington is unlike the old-fashioned mills that “cooked” lumber waste and tree chips into a pulp used for making all kinds of things, from paper bags to screwdriver handles.

Instead, Columbia Pulp’s mill on the Snake River will use a new technology that pulls cellulose out of the abundant straw left over from wheat and alfalfa harvests.

“Man has always used straw to make fiber, to make pulp,” said John Begley, Columbia Pulp CEO. “It’s not a revolutionary idea.”

What’s new is the company’s pulp-making process, which was developed by Renton-based Sustainable Fiber Technologies from research that started at the University of Washington.

“The use of straw is not new, but the way that we are converting it is,” Begley said.

With its new mill, Columbia Pulp is embarking on a scaled-up, multimillion-dollar field test of a technology that uses less energy and none of the smelly chemicals of legacy pulp-and-paper mills.

The company’s facility also shows promise in making a market for the enormous amount of straw that harvesting leaves behind. Farmers may soon have the option of selling their waste straw instead of plowing it into the ground or burning it.

“It opens up a lot of markets that weren’t there before,” said Kurt Haunreiter, manager of the Paper and Bioresource Science Center at the University of Washington.

Haunreiter doubts that straw will completely displace wood as the preferred ingredient for pulp because wood has advantages. Trees can be harvested year-round, yielding wood chips that have a long shelf life and inherently strong fiber.

Still, Haunreiter said of Columbia Pulp’s mill: “I think you’ll see more and more of these pop up.”

The mill in rural Columbia County has been years in the making. One of the company’s representatives first contacted the Dayton Chamber of Commerce about 11 years ago.

The company spent years finding a site, designing the mill, getting permits and financing the project. Last fall a bond sale to raise money for the project was postponed because of a weak bond market, prompting some skeptics in town to dub the project “pulp fiction.”

Financing for the mill fell into place this month, however. Goldman Sachs this past week completed the sale of $133.6 million in tax-exempt bonds issued by the Washington Economic Development Finance Authority.

Columbia Pulp will use its revenue to pay off the 15-year bonds, with bond investors earning 7.5 percent. The company expects to have $111 million in gross revenue during the mill’s first full year of operation in 2019, according to the bond-offering document.

The company raised an additional $54 million by selling shares in a private placement. Columbia Ventures, a private equity firm in Vancouver, Wash., invested $36 million.

The project represents a significant investment in Columbia County, a rural area dominated by farms, forests and rangeland northeast of Walla Walla.

An estimated 1,687 people held jobs in the county in June, according to the state Employment Security Department.

Columbia Pulp expects to employ about 90 people at the mill after it becomes operational in late 2018, potentially increasing the county’s job rolls by 5 percent. The mill’s annual payroll is expected to be about $9 million.

The jobs and the larger tax base will be welcome, said Jennie Dickinson, manager of the Port of Columbia in Dayton, the county seat.

“We just don’t have a lot of manufacturing, other than agriculture,” she said. “So it’s a very big deal.”

The June unemployment rate in Columbia County was 4.7 percent. But the county is considered a “distressed area” because the three-year average jobless rate was 6.9 percent at the end of last year.

Columbia Pulp has arranged to buy 449 acres on the Snake River at Lyons Ferry from Bar Z Ranch, a family farming operation that has owned the property for decades. The company will build its mill on 40 acres and manage the rest as buffer.

Few people live in the area. The nearest incorporated town is Starbuck, with an estimated population of 130.

Company executives were initially worried about their employees’ commutes to the mill, said Begley, the CEO. They are less concerned now, in part because many Seattle workers have commutes that are just as long, if not longer, he said.

The site is also served by a state highway, a railroad, a natural-gas line and the Snake River, which supports barge traffic.

Notably, Columbia Pulp’s location is in the middle of wheat country. Wheat farmers within 100 miles of the site generate about 4 million tons of straw annually, Begley said. He expects the mill to buy about 240,000 tons a year.

Columbia Pulp also expects to buy straw from Walla Walla farmers who grow alfalfa for seeds.

The mill could at least partly address the long-running problem of what to do with all of the leftover straw. Farmers have few options: They can leave the straw and plant amid the stubble, plow it under or burn it.

Dickinson, the port manager, believes a market for waste straw will reduce field burning.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to take a leftover product and put it to use,” she said.

Columbia Pulp plans to separate the cellulose from the straw and sell the pulp in bales to other manufacturers that make such things as paper towels and tissues.

The company’s pulp also could be suitable for making molded-fiber items, such as recyclable food containers.

Meanwhile, the carbohydrates and lignin from the straw form a syrup, much like molasses, that can be used for fertilizer and even dust control.

Columbia Pulp says it is lining up customers. Begley said the company has letters of interest from “a significant number of end users,” mostly in the Northwest. He declined to identify them.

Washington’s pulp-and-paper industry is older than the state itself. According to the state Department of Ecology, parts of the Georgia-Pacific mill in Camas date back to 1883, when Washington was still a territory.

But many pulp-and-paper mills have closed in recent decades. The last large mill to open was Ponderay Newsprint, in the town of Usk, north of Spokane, in 1989.

— George Erb

OfferUp app a tool for robbers

One of the nation’s most popular smartphone apps is sometimes becoming a ticket to trouble, Florida’s Palm Beach Post reports.

Since the start of 2017, the OfferUp app — which allows people to sell items to each other without a retail store or a middleman — has led to the arrests of at least five people on robbery charges in Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast.

With the click of a button to open an app and a few messages to choose a meeting spot, would-be robbers, all between the ages of 16 and 25, have tried to turn people equipped with cash to buy or a phone to sell into easy victims.

OfferUp stresses it does not “tolerate criminal activity.” It bills itself as a safe alternative to websites such as Craigslist that have long been dogged by security problems, down to the point of sending police agencies signs to designate safe-exchange zones in their lobbies.

The Bellevue company, which raised $130 million last year from investors, promotes its app with the slogan “Buy. Sell. Simple.”

It allows people anonymously to post a picture of an item to sell and chat with potential buyers. The exchanges mostly happen without harm, but some have had to hand over items while staring at a gun.

Earlier this month a 19-year-old West Palm Beach man was arrested on a charge of armed robbery after using the app to set up a meeting at a community clubhouse to buy a pair of Nikes, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office said. The teen pulled out a gun instead of cash to get the shoes.

Police departments in Florida are noticing the trend and putting out guidelines for buyers and sellers.

The Boynton Beach Police Department invited the public in January to use its lobby, open around the clock, as a safe spot to make person-to-person transactions, and people have been using it since, said spokeswoman Stephanie Slater.

Earlier this year, Boynton Beach police arrested two 16-year-olds and charged them with stealing a man’s cellphone when they met through the app.

The department also arrested a woman on a charge of paying with counterfeit bills, Slater said.

“It’s likely to be a legitimate transaction if they will meet you in the lobby of a police department,” said Slater, who noted that items a would-be robber can grab — such as cellphones — are especially susceptible to thefts through these apps.

As of Tuesday morning, OfferUp was the top grossing shopping app in the iTunes App Store. Following close behind is letgo, which is a similar app that has been used in similar crimes, authorities say.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement doesn’t keep statistics specifically of robberies that stem from these apps, but Special Agent Donald Cannon said common sense often gets forgotten when people see how easy they are to use.

“If it’s too good to be true, it’s not,” he said.

The robberies with these apps are similar to when Craigslist became popular, Cannon said. But as the website’s robberies began dwindling with public knowledge of how to prevent Craigslist crimes, marketplace-app robberies have been rising with those apps’ popularity.

Cannon advises to offer only a minimum amount of personal information when using these apps — just a first name should be fine, he said. These apps already use users’ approximate geographical location to connect with local buyers and sellers.

“I’m sure the developers of the app never thought those types of things would occur,” he said.

The app also offers its own guidelines on how to stay safe, such as looking at the person’s profile to see reviews and to meet in a well-lit public location.

The app recommends communicating only inside the app because it can monitor those conversations, and contacting OfferUp’s Trust and Safety team through the app if issues arise. It also includes a list of places it has designated as safe to make exchanges.

“The trust and the security of our users is a core focus for us at OfferUp and we do not tolerate criminal activity,” the company said in a statement. “We have worked closely with local law enforcement in Palm Beach County.”

— Palm Beach Post