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Paper Mill Closure: A Turning Point for Tacoma’s Grit City

The End of an Era

WestRock, a prominent corrugated packaging company based in Georgia, recently announced the impending closure of its paper mill situated on the Tacoma tideflats by the end of September. For nearly a century, this mill has been diligently converting wood fibers into paper while giving rise to the infamous sulfurous scent known as the “Tacoma Aroma.” However, the city’s distinctive fragrance has garnered a positive reputation as “the smell of jobs,” highlighting its historical connection to the industrial sector.

Impact on the Workforce

The closure of the mill will affect approximately 400 employees, as revealed in the press release issued by WestRock. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 76, representing a portion of the mill’s workforce, is actively engaged in negotiations with the company regarding severance packages and the transition process. Unfortunately, they are unable to provide further details at this time. In an effort to support their employees, WestRock has pledged to offer severance pay and outplacement assistance. CEO David B. Sewell expressed their commitment, stating, “We are dedicated to helping our Tacoma team explore job opportunities at other WestRock locations and nearby companies, while also providing them with outplacement support.”

Evolving Industries in Grit City

The mill’s closure signifies yet another transformation in Grit City’s ever-changing industrial landscape. Interestingly, not a single manufacturing job made it to the list of major area employers in 2020. However, Andrea Reay, president of the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce, remains optimistic about the city’s future. She emphasizes the chamber’s focus on reemploying the 400 workers within the local community, acknowledging that the current workforce shortage has generated increasing demand for skilled employees among numerous local companies.

Ripple Effects on the Economy

While the economic consequences of the mill closure will undoubtedly be most acutely felt by the affected employees and their families, its impact extends beyond the 400 individuals directly involved. For decades, the WestRock Paper Mill has been a significant consumer of water provided by Tacoma Public Utilities, accounting for approximately 30% of the utility’s annual water demands and contributing around 7% of its revenue. The utility anticipates a combined biennial revenue loss of $14.6 million as a result of the closure. To compensate for this shortfall, the public utility board plans to propose a rate adjustment, potentially increasing costs for customers by 8-9% over the next few years. Additionally, discussions will be held regarding further enhancements to the Bill Credit Assistance Plan.

Managing Excess Water Capacity

With the mill’s closure, the utility will experience excess water capacity. However, this surplus infrastructure cannot be immediately discarded. To ensure water quality and prevent stagnation within the pipes, the utility will need to implement measures such as flushing. Scott Dewhirst, Tacoma Water superintendent, likens this situation to a children’s water table in which excess water remains despite having fewer outlets. The utility is currently working with the mill to establish a plan for gradually reducing water usage.

The History and Legacy

The story of the paper mill, which operated for nearly a century before its inevitable closure, embodies the archetypal narrative seen in many American timber towns. Tacoma, like several early Euro-American settlements on the West Coast, thrived as a timber town. Subsidiary industries, including furniture, shingles, wooden toys, and paper production, flourished in this city blessed with abundant trees and a well-established railroad system. The paper mill initially relied on the wood waste generated by the adjacent St. Paul Tacoma Lumber Company’s mill. However, as logging activities moved farther away from the city and lumber mills closed, the paper mill adapted and eventually severed its direct ties to the lumber industry.

Reasons for Consolidation

WestRock’s decision to consolidate by closing the Tacoma mill arises from the challenges posed by high operating costs and the need for significant improvements. This closure marks the second facility shutdown for the company this year.

A Breath of Fresh Air

The mill’s process of converting wood into paper pulp releases organic vapors, resulting in the distinctive Tacoma Aroma that permeates the city. With the closure of the mill, Tacoma may gradually bid farewell to this peculiar scent. James DeMay, an employee of the Washington State Department of Ecology’s industrial section, handles the air quality permit for the mill. According to DeMay, while the emissions may produce an odor, they generally do not pose a risk to human health. Once the mill ceases operations, these emissions will naturally come to an end. The company will be responsible for any necessary cleanup actions, monitored by Ecology to ensure compliance with state and federal standards.

A Beloved Quirk

The Tacoma Aroma holds a special place in the hearts of Tacomans, serving as a cultural touchstone that unifies the community, despite its less-than-delightful nature. Chris Staudinger, proprietor of Pretty Gritty Tours in Tacoma, humorously remarks, “Tell me what great city smells beautiful.” Elizabeth Korsmo, curator at the Tacoma Historical Society, agrees, affirming that the scent, though far less prevalent than in the past, remains a lovable aspect of the city’s identity.

Correction 8/28: This article has been updated to clarify the amount of projected biennial revenue from the paper mill to the utility.