Greener Pastures for Oregon Manufacturing


Tonkon Torp helps seed sustainability at Gunderson.

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Tonkon Torp helps seed sustainability at Gunderson

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At Gunderson, environmental stewardship is woven deeply into workplace culture.

Left to right: Harvey of Gunderson, Schuster, Stafford, Rabbino, Miller, Neuman and Goodman of Tonkon Torp and Hill of Gunderson.

Visit the busy industrial area wedged between the Willamette River and Forest Park in outer Northwest Portland and you might notice something unusual.

Amid the towering cranes and bustling shipyards of Gunderson LLC’s railcar and barge manufacturing facility, birds are nesting, bees are buzzing and green stuff is sprouting.

Big production really can serve as a platform for sustainability, says Gunderson senior vice president and general manager Mark Eitzen, if only you balance work zones with surrounding ecology and assemble just the right team.

With support from its parent corporation, the Greenbrier Companies, plus advice from the legal counsel at Portland-based law firm Tonkon Torp LLP and an attending flock of eco-experts, Gunderson sustainably reimagined the configurations of everything from its rooftops to its riverbanks.

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Gunderson’s river bank is an ongoing experiment in habitat restoration.

It’s a top-down approach to sustainability, says Greenbrier director of environment, health and safety David Harvey, quite literally: The team has even constructed three custom-designed habitat roofs from barge panels and laid thick with soil and vegetation.

Tonkon Torp, which brought regulatory expertise to the project, loved the concept of turning buildings into extensions of the surrounding environment, says partner and former chair of the firm’s environmental and natural resources practice group Max M. Miller, Jr.

But this is more than just a pretty garden, Harvey adds: “The idea is to have the food chain established. You have the bugs in the soil, then you have spiders to capture the bugs, then wasps get the spiders, then birds go after the wasps and spiders. It’s a rest stop in an otherwise very industrialized area.”

Among the neighboring residents: river-feeding osprey, two of whom recently shacked up atop a plant crane. With help from the Audubon Society, Gunderson employees redirected the burgeoning aerie to a custom-built platform temporarily laden with sardines. It worked. Now the ospreys nest comfortably and the cranes move freely.

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Osprey nest annually atop a special platform on the plant’s grounds.

Down on the ground, invasive blackberries were literal thorns in the side of plant property until Gunderson took action. But habitat restoration is tricky, admits Harvey: The brambles had to be removed in a manner that did not elevate erosion risks, but geese gobbled up compensatory groundcover, and beavers felled newly accessible trees. Perseverance and experimentation eventually netted healthy native vegetation.

There’s often no map when experimenting with sustainability, which makes sturdy logistical support essential, says Jeanette C. Schuster, current Tonkon Torp practice group chair: “It’s about the strategy piece. How can we solve it, how can we look forward, how can we plan a strategy together that works for the client?” Strategies at Tonkon Torp are often arrived at via a solution-oriented team approach leveraging the diverse areas of expertise in the firm’s environmental and natural resources practice group: water law expert Janet Neuman; real estate attorney and chair of the firm’s Sustainability Committee Kimberlee Stafford; former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency litigator David Rabbino; commercial/environmental litigator Zach Wright; and commercial/environmental paralegal Elizabeth Goodman.

For Gunderson, that strategy has been learning to see environmental stewardship as a long game, won by dint of details — efforts it hopes will inspire fellow Oregonians within and beyond its manufacturing plant.

Green thinking is definitely catching, notes Miller: “We represent lots of large manufacturers — though few as large as this one — and employees tend to work on sites with the attitude of doing what’s important to their employer. If they see evidence that their employer is truly concerned about the environment, they are more likely to follow that lead.”

Eitzen agrees wholeheartedly: “A healthy river is more important to us than it is to most people. We work on it every day, and a lot of our employees live and play on the river. It’s vital to what we do.”