Protecting the environment is our responsibility
April 22nd marks the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day, an event first held in 1970. On that day more than 20 million Americans participated in coast-to-coast rallies advocating for a more healthy and sustainable environment.
At the time, the connection between industrial pollution and human and environmental health had only recently come into the mainstream. However, those massive rallies helped spur swift action. Within four years, the government had formed the Environmental Protection Agency, (1970) and Congress passed the Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972), and Endangered Species Act (1973).
Today, the situation has changed. While there’s still much work left to be done, environmental concerns are at the forefront of our national discourse. Moreover, environmental responsibility serves as a cornerstone of the way many businesses operate. That’s certainly true here at Columbia Steel.
A Culture of Sustainability
Throughout the years, our team has taken a proactive approach to initiatives that reduce our impact on the environment. These programs don’t come in response to pressure from outside regulators. Instead, our efforts are an expression of our company’s desire to go about our essential work responsibly.
Founded in 1901, Columbia Steel installed one of the first dust collectors in the Western United States in the late 1930’s. We moved to our current location in St. Johns in 1962 and enjoy the wildlife and wetland habitat (roughly one third of our property) along our northern boundary adjacent to the Columbia Slough. Our employees are proud and protective of the wildlife that share our site. In 1975, then governor Bob Straub presented Columbia Steel with a state award for environmental leadership.
Our choice of materials, specifically sand binders, is guided by the need to be both employee-friendly and environmentally responsible. The primary binders for our Olivine sand are Western bentonite clay, corn meal, and water. We don’t use silica sands, in order to avoid silicosis exposure for employees as well as neighbors and wildlife.
We‘ve nearly completed a voluntary cleanup program in partnership with the Department of Environment Quality (DEQ) to investigate and correct previous issues on our site, whether caused by previous landowners or a result of Columbia’s operations over 60 years with evolving regulations and environmental awareness.
Columbia Steel is considered a “natural minor” source, with respect to air pollution, which is the lowest possible EPA category and almost unheard of for a foundry of our size. Through the use of top quality filter bags and finely-tuned baghouses to collect dust, our particulate emissions are nearly 80% below current air permit limits. Our careful selection of clean raw materials further reduces the need for more pollution control measures.
We are now involved with Cleaner Air Oregon (CAO), which is DEQ’s newest program that will measure, monitor, and control previously unregulated air toxins — ensuring Oregon has the most stringent air quality program in the nation. More than 350 Oregon companies will be working with Oregon DEQ to implement the new CAO rules and Columbia Steel is among the first. The process will help empower us to better understand our environmental impact and make any necessary adjustments. We are proceeding with extensive testing programs, the results of which indicate our actual air emissions are far below initial estimates by DEQ.
Electrical Energy Conservation
Our operation requires a great deal of electrical power. As a result, we’re one of PacificCorp’s biggest customers. We’ve taken steps to reduce our electrical use in several different ways, including major lighting retrofit projects. Exterior and interior lighting upgrades over the past 5 years, coupled with motion control on/off switches, resulted in a 844,855 kilowatt-hour (kWh) reduction and an annual carbon dioxide reduction of 514 tons. An electrical upgrade to one arc furnace in 2016 saved over 400,000 kWh per year. Additional projects have targeted the plant’s many air compressors, replacing older inefficient ones, and linking them together with state-of-the-art control systems for energy management.
Other improvements include upgrading our dust filtration system to feature more efficient fans and controls that automatically turn these systems on and off so they only run when needed.
We are committed to purchasing a portion of our electricity through PacificCorp’s “Blue Sky” program. This program finances clean, renewable wind power generation, and helps promote more future renewable energy development. The electricity we purchase this way is the equivalent carbon offset of 834,504 car-miles.
Our operation requires a lot of process water. However, we’ve proactively reduced our fresh water usage to the point where we’re consuming only 3% of the water we consumed at our peak in 1978, saving 500 million gallons per year. These efforts have garnered us a number of awards, including the City of Portland’s “BEST” award (Business for Environmentally Sustainable Tomorrow) in April 2000 for our water conservation accomplishments, and again in 2006 for our diverse recycling programs.
As a company, we’re working towards the goal of being a zero-waste facility. So, recycling is a significant part of our daily operations. More than 95% of our raw materials are from recycling sources. What’s more, every day, we recycle up to 50 tons of scrap steel, 200 tons of sand and one million gallons of water. Every month, our recycling programs keep 10,000 tons of office paper, cardboard, pallets, wood scraps and sawdust out of landfills. We also collect and recycle batteries, light bulbs, used oil and antifreeze, computers and other electronic equipment.
In partnership with DEQ’s Beneficial Use program, we’ve developed a number of successful options for our recycled foundry sand initiative. One significant use is to sell recycled sand and slag to construction firms as a cost-effective alternative to quarried material, while also keeping it out of landfills. We have also developed several other innovative reuse options and continue to search for more as we work towards our zero-waste goal.
On top of all this, we’re honored to serve the recycling industry by manufacturing quality wear parts used for recycling machinery.
A Company-Wide Approach
Much like our safety programs, environmental responsibility isn’t a part-time undertaking. Instead, it forms the foundation for our daily operations. While Earth Day 2020 is an excellent opportunity to highlight these efforts, we’ll continue pursuing our goal of a cleaner earth all year long.