Simpson hands off its pulp mill with honor

Corks won’t pop off champagne bottles when a responsible company sells off a pulp mill with a tawdry past and potentially troublesome future.

But you can hope for the best. That’s how we’re dealing with Simpson Lumber Company’s decision to transfer its Tideflats paper mill to RockTenn, a Georgia outfit that’s a bit of a stranger in this corner of the country. Simpson will hang on to its sawmill at the site.

RockTenn looks like a promising newcomer, the kind that knocks on the neighbors’ doors with loaves of fresh-baked bread and offers to take their garbage cans out when they’re gone. RockTenn certainly knows the business: It runs 24 paper mills, most located in the southeastern United States.

The company intends to keep all the employees of the Tacoma pulp mill, a good sign. Its leaders say they have healthy relationships with unionized and non-unionized workers at the plants RockTenn already owns.

But an immense chemical plant in the middle of a densely populated metropolitan area is problematic by definition. The mill near the mouth of Foss Waterway once did enormous damage to the environment and to Tacoma’s reputation. If a future owner let it slide, it could again become a major liability to the area.

Simpson bought the plant in 1985. A look back shows how extraordinary a neighbor the company has been.

Built in 1928, the mill severely polluted the adjacent mudflats and waterway, turning its surroundings into a toxic dead zone. It was also the chief contributor to the noxious, sulfurous odors that routinely drifted out of the Tideflats. The smell prompted endless jokes about the “Tacoma Aroma”; it reinforced the city’s image as a decaying post-industrial wasteland.

Simpson spent hundreds of millions of dollars changing all that. High points:

 • It replaced stinking boilers, eventually eliminating the odor as part of a quarter-billion-dollar plant overhaul.

 • It came up with a creative plan to clean up the mudflats, which again became habitat for young salmon and other creatures.

 • It steeply cut its water consumption, steam plumes and emissions of airborne particles.

 • It greatly expanded its cardboard recycling and built a renewable-fueled 55-megawatt power plant to run the mill.

What if some other company had managed the operation as a cash cow, avoiding investment and battling environmental regulations whenever possible? It’s too easy to imagine a continuing stink, or the whole plant abandoned to blight the Tideflats as a towering junkyard.

We don’t expect anything of the sort from RockTenn, which has promised an initial investment of $60 million to keep the plant up to date. One reason to trust RockTenn: Simpson does. No company that builds such an environmental legacy wants to see it get squandered by the heirs.