Turning spoils into commodities on the Columbia River

Turning spoils into commodities on the Columbia River

BY LINDA BAKER

One of the best things about my job is I get to attend interesting events where I meet interesting people. At this week’s Fundingpost event, for example, I met Jonathan Trumbull, CEO and co founder of ECO Mineral & Steel – more on that later – and a distant relative of the Connecticut colonial governor, Jonathan Trumbull and his son Jonathan Trumbull, an artist noted for his paintings of the American Revolutionary War. (Trumbull junior's Declaration of Independence appeared on the back of the $2 bill).

In any case, it’s always tough having famous relatives, but Jonathan Trumbull, 21st century entrepreneur, may leave his own mark in the history books. An Oregon native, Trumbull, like his forebearer, has a background in fine arts; he sold sculptures and paintings as a teen, and attended the Cooper Union School of Art in New York.  He then went on to a career working for the famous Wetlands Preserve, a Tribeca nightclub that also raised money for social and environmental causes around the world.

But all that was mere prelude to the work Trumbull aims to do today with ECO Mineral: create a green solution to the excessive “dredge spoils” from the Columbia, which have been linked to environmental, economic and safety problems on both the Oregon and Washington sides of the river. The long-term goal is to channel money earned from that endeavor into an “environmental solutions” company aimed at cleaning up the Columbia.  “It’s capital with a conscience,” says Trumbull.

A bit of background: Every year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredges about 5 million cubic yards of material from the Columbia to allow ship traffic to proceed.  That material is then deposited in various places; one of the largest deposit sites in the Lower Columbia is Rice Island, known for its former colony of Caspian terns, which happily feasted on salmon smolts until being forcibly removed to another location.  

Today, the amount of material dredged from the Columbia continues to grow.  “But the problem is you can’t willy-nilly create new islands,” says Trumbull.  “You create environmental problems, change currents and patterns." You also antagonize local communities such as North coast crabbers who are concerned about the latest Army Corps' proposals to create new dredge sites along the mouth of the Columbia.

Enter ECO Mineral & Steel, which aims to mine the iron ore magnetite, as well as the titanium and silicon ore locked into the dredge materials, then sell the products as commodities to steel producers in Asia.  According Trumbull, the South Korean firms POSCO and Hyundai have already expressed interest in negotiating contracts for 50,000 tons a month.  He says the project has support from local ports, that the water-based mining process is “ecologically sound” and that excavation royalties will create revenue for schools and the state.

All told, ECO Mineral & Steel is proposing a modern day, triple-bottom-line spin on an old-time industrial practice: mining.  Here Trumbull’s personal story intersects with another piece of American, or at least, Columbia River, history.  In 1963, Trumbull’s father, Robert, operated what his son describes as an "enigmatic"  mini-steel mill and iron-ore concentration plant in Chinook, Wash., using Columbia River dredge materials.  Even today, says Trumbull, his father is the only person to have successfully produced high quality steel from river dredge spoils.
 
As the market for iron ore soars, Trumbull decided to revive a non-polluting version of his father’s project — with Trumbull senior, who is a cofounder of ECO Mineral.

There’s a lot more backstory to this story, including an Oregon Solutions effort to market the sands on Rice Island, a scandal involving former (fired) Port of Astoria director Peter Gearin, who attempted his own business marketing the sands, and a "true-life" novel in the works by Robert Trumbull about the inexplicably mysterious old days in Chinook, a story that involves, among other things, a joint-venture with then Washington Governor Albert Rossellini. The backdrop to all this is the mighty Columbia and its history as the region's industrial and environmental epicenter.

In short, it’s too much for a blog post.  But in a region where most startups revolve around mobile apps, far fewer around consumer products and even fewer around industrial operations, ECO Mineral & Steel stands out as something, well, a bit more epic, with a father-son and natural resources plotline that has a whiff of  Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion.

Trumbull is currently seeking $3 million in investment to purchase equipment he says is necessary to meet customer demand.

"I want to strike while the iron is hot."

Linda Baker is managing editor of Oregon Business.