Improvements are coming to the defunct Milford paper mill, beginning with new ownership and the removal of remaining transformers from the complex along the Delaware River.
International Paper of Memphis, and Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific have agreed to acquire the bankrupt property and support the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as it turns the old mill into a Superfund site.The deals brought sighs of relief for borough officials, who now see a path through the tedious clean-up process. But with most of the work still to be done on site, there are no answers yet about what could replace the mill.
"The companies really stepped up to the plate," said Mayor Jim Gallos. "We're really grateful for that."
When the mill suddenly closed in 2003, Milford lost jobs and tax revenues as well as part of its identity. Since then, the complex next to a residential neighborhood has turned into an eyesore. EPA began investigating the property, but was looking for companies responsible for contamination to take charge.
"We take all of our responsibilities seriously," said Roger Schumer, a remediation project manger for International Paper, although noting "neither company ever directly operated the mill."
Most recently owned by Curtis Specialty Papers, which filed for bankruptcy six years ago, the mill is known locally as Riegel after the family who built it in 1907. Since then, it has passed through many hands. International Paper acquired it in a purchase of Federal Paperwork. Georgia-Pacific added it in a deal for James River Corp.
After the mill closed, Milford and Alexandria, which wants its share of the site for open space, conceived a redevelopment plan. Developers were interested in acquiring the 73-acre property through U.S. Bankruptcy Court, but their proposals were heavy on housing, while the local vision anticipates commerce and offices.
International Paper and Georgia-Pacific then stepped in, putting up $70,000 in a bankruptcy auction to acquire the site. The judge signed off on the action, "and we're in the process of taking the steps to complete the closing," Schumer said.
"It's still going to take 15-20 years to clean the whole site up," Gallos said, but added that having the two companies as active partners could bring significant changes sooner.
"I think the buildings are going to be razed some time in the next two years," he said.
As for what will ultimately replace the mill, the mayor said the borough stands by the mixed-use development plan, which would include 30 homes and allow for the possibility of light industry.
The two companies have not presented their ideas, but "I don't think they're going to have another paper mill there," Gallos said.
The companies are familiar with the redevelopment plan, but "we don't know what the future uses of the site are," Schumer said. "It's much too early to say. We're just getting started."
The first step will be removal of the transformers, already outlined in a work plan the companies are submitting to the EPA, he said. Following the plant's closure, some equipment was haphazardly removed, but the new effort will be careful and systematic, Schumer said. Subsequent steps will depend on what else investigators find, he said.
EPA already began its preliminary work on the site, but the companies' involvement "is a jump start for what we're able to do," said Alison Hess, project manager for the mill and the neighboring Crown Vantage Landfill, already on the Superfund list.
Often, the agency must identify and pursue responsible parties through the courts. With the two companies coming forward, "this really streamlines things" as EPA workers investigate the extent of contamination, she said.
There are no shortcuts for some steps in the process. The EPA expects to add the mill to the Superfund list in September. The year-long site investigation is expected to determine the extent of the pollution.
The companies will consider their options, discussing the scenarios and their costs with the agency, while seeking to develop an agreement for the clean-up phase. If things go smoothly, the EPA will plans to the public and zero in on its preferred alternative.
Meanwhile, EPA continues to research other companies that might have contributed to the contamination, Hess said. Hopes are fainter to find contributors to work at Crown Vantage, "which might after a number of years be considered to be abandoned," she said.
International Paper and Georgia-Pacific have been working closely with the EPA, and already are cooperating to upgrade security at the site, adding lights and full-time guards and repairing fences.
A citizens advisory group advisory group meets quarterly to monitor the process, with its next session scheduled for Sept. 25 in the Milford library.