The Port of Columbia County has approved the ground lease for NEXT.
In a vote of three in favor and two opposed, at their Wednesday, Sept. 4 commission meeting, port commissioners approved a ground lease for NEXT Renewable Fuels Oregon, LLC, a biofuels plant, to construct a biofuels facility at Port Westward.
Port commissioners also approved a memorandum of agreement with NEXT, mandating the facility will not take advantage of any tax breaks from the Enterprise Zone where the facility is located, meaning they will pay property taxes from the beginning of operations.
According to its website, NEXT Renewable Fuels turns recycled organic materials into renewable biofuels. Lou Soumas is the president and director of the company.
Commissioners Larry Ericksen, Robert Keyser and Chris Iverson voted for the lease, while Commissioners Nancy Ward and Chip Bubl voted against.
“The port has, as I can see, no dollars at risk,” Commissioner Keyser said. He added that if the project with NEXT did not work out, NEXT would still have to pay their rent per the terms of their lease.
“If they leave, we will have a pot of money to decide how to move on and market the property to the next [tenant],” Keyser said.
Not all port commissioners agreed with Keyser, Iverson and Ericksen.
Commissioner Bubl voted against the lease and read out a list of 12 concerns to support his vote. He listed concerns about the financial backing of the project including a lack of knowledge surrounding affiliates of the project, a lack of documentation from private lenders and an absence of a deadline for financial support to be in place. He also said he thought an 80-year lease was too long. Additionally, Bubl mentioned concerns about the construction of the facility resulting in road problems as well as the location of the facility being in an earthquake-prone area. Bubl listed his final concern as being a lack of funds to cover damages in the event of an oil spill.
Commissioner Ward supported her vote against the lease by saying she thought the risk was too high.
“We have taken risks at Port Westward in the past and they have proven not to be as attractive as we had hoped they would be, and sometimes proven to be a total failure,” Ward said.
Ward then referred to Commissioner Keyser’s past comment that he gave the project a 51 percent chance of survival, saying, “When we have a commissioner who wants this project more than any of us on the board saying that he gives it a 50/50 chance of surviving, I think that is too big a risk to take.”
Some port commissioners responded to Bubl’s and Ward’s comments and concerns. Iverson said a lot of Bubl’s concerns were due to him being a new commissioner.
“If we approve this ground lease, [Soumas] still has a thousand hoops to jump through,” Iverson said. “There’s every regulatory agency in our state and our federal government that he would have to comply with that are much more versed at these types of things than the five of us sitting up here.”
Iverson re-stated he was confident in his approval of the lease.
“I think we’ve done more due diligence on this project than we’ve ever done with anybody,” Iverson said.
Keyser also said his 51 percent chance comment was not based on Soumas’ past projects, but on all the projects that have tried to site at Port Westward.
“That’s the highest number I’ve ever given anybody,” Keyser said.
The Sept. 4 vote is the latest development since NEXT first signed an Option to Lease Agreement in September of last year. Since then, the controversial project has been the subject of multiple port meetings, as well as an open house that NEXT held in July of this year at the Clatskanie Cultural Center Ballroom to educate the public about its operations.
NEXT has stated it will bring more than 200 jobs to Columbia County and has also stated it will not be using rail for operations. Because they will not be benefiting from the Enterprise Zone tax break, they will also be contributing to the tax base for public entities such as schools that derive their funding from that source.
Members of the public and port commissioners alike have highlighted those two points as positives for the project.
Some constituents and other entities, notably the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper, have expressed concerns.
At the Sept. 4 meeting, Kate Murphy, a representative from Columbia Riverkeeper, listed environmental concerns the group has about the project, namely questions Riverkeeper believes the port has not addressed.
Among concerns such as whether or not a pipeline would be required for natural gas at the facility, Murphy listed Soumas’ involvement with the TransMessis Columbia Plateau facility, which was involved in a 2015 environmental cleanup lawsuit.
“Riverkeeper is concerned that NEXT Energy has offered contradictory information to public agencies about their involvement in the TransMessis Columbia Plateau facility,” Murphy said.
Soumas also spoke briefly, saying the ground lease approval would be the start of the process for the facility.
“We will work very closely with the community through the next phase of this, which is permitting,” Soumas said.