Port commissioners voted 5-0 to amend the lease agreement with Global Partners LP, owner of the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery. The company, whose facility is located at Port Westward, will be allowed to work with heavier grades of crude oil.
Elbow-to-elbow, an audience filled the St. Helens Library Auditorium for a Port of Columbia County meeting for a discussion about Global Partners. The company asked to handle a wider range of products at the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery, needing a lease amendment to do so.
The Port commission was overflowed with the public for a Nov. 28 meeting in which comments were heard from proponents and opponents of the lease amendment. With standing room only in the meeting chamber, some were left outside. Attendance was again expected to be heavy as the commissioners were expected to act on the proposed changes after a delay at the November meeting.
Global said the lease amendment represents a potential $75 million investment and an increase to 40 on-site jobs from 24 at the Port Westward location. In January of 2016, Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery laid off 28 employees citing “severe headwinds affecting the crude oil market and the corresponding decrease in crude oil trans-loading activities at the facility.”
Environmental watchdog Columbia Riverkeeper issued a statement after the Nov. 28 meeting, saying oil spills pose unacceptable risks to clean water, salmon, and human health. Riverkeeper has previously challenged industrial expansions at Port Westward and has repeatedly warned public officials of what it sees as the dangers of shipping crude oil and ethanol. A number of groups and local agriculture operations have also protested what they see as industrial encroachment.
Riverkeeper issued another statement directly after the Dec. 12 meeting and vote, saying that decision “paves the way for more catastrophic oil trains barreling through communities across the region.”
“The Port Commission chose to ignore local elected officials from St. Helens and people that live along the rail line," Columbia Riverkeeper Conservation Director Dan Serres said.
“Instead, the Commission rushed to approve dangerous new oil products at Global’s Port Westward facility and opened the door to controversial tar sands-by-rail," Serres said. "Oil trains impose tremendous risks to public health, drinking water, and fishing grounds. The Port’s rush to approve more oil trains is uninformed, unconscionable, and reckless."
Regna Merritt of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility said, "Unfortunately, today's vote increases the risk to all communities on rails that carry dangerous tar sands and crude oil to Port Westward. Threats to health and safety were pushed aside to give Global Partners a green light."
"This means delayed emergency response, increased air and water pollution, increased noise, increases risk of spills, fire, and explosions," Merritt said. "Low income, communities of color and tribal nations will be disproportionately impacted."
Following the vote, Global Partner spokesperson Catie Kerns said the company appreciated the Port commission’s careful consideration as well as the support from the Port, community members, labor partners and facility employees.
“This decision adds more flexibility to our operations,” Kerns said. “It has the potential to increase investment at the Port, generate jobs and lead to a stronger future for the county.”
Kerns said after Global Partners began operating the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery in 2013, its safety record has been impeccable, adding that the company would continue to follow its strict operating procedures to ensure safe and reliable operations. “Safety is always our highest priority,” she said.
Oils are classified by their American Petroleum Institute (API) gravity. Global had wanted to eliminate its API limit, allowing it to ship the heaviest types of crude oil. Kerns previously said the company inherited an API gravity limit of 30-44 within its lease. In that lease were provisions that the company could request API changes based on safety performance and operation records.
Kerns also previously said Global was not interested in handling products with API gravity below a 10 rating, where the heaviest crude oils are categorized. Heavy crude oil – that with an API rating of 20 or below – can sink below the water's surface, making spill cleanup difficult.
The lease amendment lowered the API limit for the company to 18, which includes some heavy-rated crude oil. The upper level API limit of 44 remained in place.
Addressing public concerns that trains could grow in frequency and length, affecting traffic throughout the county, Kerns said in a previous interview that there are specific limitations on transports. The Port of Columbia County restricted the company to 24 trains per month or 32,000 rail cars per year. She said Global was not asking for any changes to the rail car restriction.
Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery was initially built for ethanol, garnering $36 million in green energy loans and tax incentives from the state. It went belly-up in 2009 and then-owner JH Kelly, who was contracted to build the plant, sold it to Global Partners. Oil shipping began from the site in 2012.
Longview’s Daily News reported in 2016 that Global Partners was fined $102,000 for exceeding the 50-million gallon limit for the site that was authorized by the state. It was reported that Global had shipped 300-million gallons during 2013 in drawing the fine.
Port of Columbia County commissioners on Nov. 28 sat for lengthy testimony and discussion re…