Columbia Pulp closes abruptly
Columbia County's second largest employer announced temporary suspension of production
April 9, 2020
Columbia County's second largest employer and third-highest taxpayer began an orderly shutdown of its wheat-straw pulp mill on Sunday, March 29, and completed the suspension of operations on Tuesday, March 31.
Although classified as a critical manufacturing facility according to Gov. Inslee's Stay Safe, Stay Home declaration, the Board of Managers decided to layoff 93 salaried and hourly workers, retaining only eight employees. "This action was taken to protect employees and their families and to ensure the safety of the community at large," as stated in their April 1 press release.
Columbia Pulp uses wheat farmers' waste straw to create pulp for paper products as well as bio-polymers for a variety of industrial uses and dubs itself "North America's first tree-free pulp mill."
"After careful deliberation the Board of Managers has elected to enact an orderly and temporary suspension of operations at the Lyons Ferry Facility. These are extraordinary times and the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic are unprecedented. The employees of Columbia Pulp have given tremendous effort and brought incredible leadership to bringing the Lyons Ferry facility into production. The Board has determined that following the State of Washington's Stay at Home, Stay Safe guidance is the best course of action at this time." Stated CEO John Begley in the recent press release.
The decision to re-open the Lyons Ferry facility "will be based on when the social distancing restrictions are lifted. Yesterday's extension (Gov. Inslees' extension of the Stay Safe, Stay Home declaration to May 4, 2020,) naturally delayed our ability to decide," noted Columbia Pulp Vice President Mike Schock, in an email to The Times.
The straw-pulp facility near Starbuck, WA began operations in September, 2019 and draws its employees from a wide-ranging area including Dayton, Pomeroy, Waitsburg, Walla Walla and Prescott.
The press release announcing the closure stated that "the company was notified that various equipment vendors may not be able to support the operations of its straw pulp facility due to its remote location, travel disruptions and the health status of their workers. Moreover, concern mounted among our workforce, their families and our communities regarding the continuation of operations in this environment."
No instances of illness, or positive test results for the coronavirus had been noted from the employees at the time of the closure.
Information about severance pay or support offered to the furloughed employees was not available from the company citing their policy "to keep this kind of information internal and confidential," Schock stated. "However, we have put measures in place and provided our employees with what we feel is sound guidance and information surrounding these areas," he continued.
An additional question about actions the company might be taking to strengthen the area's resources prompted the response that "Right now, some employees are volunteering in their respective communities."