The Port of Columbia County voted four to one to hold the ground lease for NEXT Renewable Fuels, Inc. until their next port commission meeting on August 28, where the lease will be on the agenda again as a resolution.
Port President Larry Ericksen motioned to table the lease until the following port commission meeting, saying Commissioner Nancy Ward had mentioned she would like more time to review the lease.
“I would really like to see you guys have every opportunity to get up to speed and make sure that when you make your vote, you’re comfortable with it,” Ericksen said to his fellow port commissioners.
Port Vice President Robert Keyser was not in favor of tabling the resolution, saying he thought the commission had enough information to approve the ground lease that day.
After Ericksen confirmed with Lou Soumas, President of NEXT, that delaying the vote would not negatively impact any aspect of NEXT’s operations, the port commissioners agreed to table the resolution until the next port meeting.
NEXT has been in talks with the port about developing a renewable biofuels plant at Port Westward in Clatskanie since last year. The port first entered into a Site Development and Option Agreement with NEXT on September 12, 2018 and since then the company has added three amendments, including one at the August 7 meeting, to the option agreement.
NEXT has stated the project is expected to bring 200 jobs to Columbia County, something port commissioners and representatives from cities in Columbia County have praised as being beneficial for economic development.
However, both Columbia County residents and port commissioners have expressed concerns about terms in the lease, ranging from environmental hazards to liability issues.
During the August 7 meeting, 12 people made public comments, both Columbia County residents and key players in economic development in the county.
At least six of the commenters expressed exclusive support for the new biofuels facility, many stating the project would bring jobs to Columbia County.
Two of those in favor of the facility were Greg Hinkelman, City Manager for Clatskanie, and Bob Bracjich, Mayor of Clatskanie, who both said the facility would provide more jobs for the city.
Others expressed concerns about the lease.
One concern came from Brady Preheim, a St. Helens resident, who said he thought the port had not done its due diligence in investigating Soumas, who is involved in an ongoing lawsuit from 2015 regarding a failed biofuels plant in Odessa, Washington, according to court records from Lincoln County Court in Davenport, Washington.
“There’s a lot of concern about this company and its background,” Preheim said, also adding NEXT would be taking up part of what Preheim called very valuable land to the port.
“If you’re all willing to put your personal assets on the line, great. If you’re not, then you need to wait,” Preheim said.
An additional public commenter who expressed concern was Dan Serres, Conservation Director at Columbia Riverkeeper.
Serres asked the port commissioners to consider different issues, such as if the refinery would be an emitter of air pollution, what types of hazardous materials the facility would use, and how much gas the facility would use.
Soumas briefly responded to comments and said most of Serres’ concerns had already been addressed.
After port commissioners voted to table the lease, they discussed various revisions to the lease at length, while making no final decisions.
One revision suggestion came from Commissioner Ward, who asked if it would be possible to include a stipulation in the lease that would mandate that all jobs created go to Columbia County residents. After a brief discussion, port commissioners said it would not be possible, given that it would be too stringent a restriction for NEXT.
Recently, the port had two meetings to discuss the lease and invite public comment. One occurred during a port work session on July 24, and another occurred during a town hall meeting on August 6 at Columbia City Community Hall.
NEXT also held an open house about their proposed biofuels facility on July 25 at the Clatskanie Cultural Center.
The Chief will update this ongoing story, both at thechiefnews.com and in Friday’s print edition.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated approval of the lease would be the last step before construction could begin. That is not correct, and has been removed from the article. The Chief regrets the error.