Bend Bulletin - LUBA reverses permit for rail yard at proposed refinery on Columbia River

October 29, 2022
Bend Bulletin - LUBA reverses permit for rail yard at proposed refinery on Columbia River

CLATSKANIE — The Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals has reversed a decision by Columbia County permitting a 318-car rail yard that would be part of a proposed renewable diesel refinery along the lower Columbia River.

Opponents of the refinery cheered the ruling as a “major setback” for Next Renewables, while a company spokesman said it will not impact the project.

Based in Houston, Next Renewables wants to build the largest renewable diesel refinery on the West Coast at Port Westward, an industrial park owned by the Port of Columbia County near Clatskanie, about 60 miles northwest of Portland.

The refinery would produce up to 50,000 barrels of renewable diesel per day, made from recycled organic material such as used cooking oil.

But neighbors, including local farmers, argue the facility poses a threat to crops and the environment. Port Westward is next to the Beaver Slough Drainage District, which manages irrigation canals and flood control for 5,717 acres of farmland.

Columbia County commissioners approved permits to build both the refinery and rail yard in February. Next officials have stated the $1.6 billion refinery will employ more than 200 people, with annual state and local taxes exceeding $45 million.

Columbia Riverkeeper, 1000 Friends of Oregon and Mike Seely, of Seely Mint Farm, appealed the rail permit to LUBA. They said a portion of the tracks would cross land zoned exclusively for farm use, and therefore could not be allowed without an exception to Oregon’s statewide land use planning goals.

Rail yard or branch line?

Next insisted the rail yard was a railway branch line, which is allowed on exclusive farm use land. Ultimately, LUBA sided with the environmental groups and Seely, issuing its final opinion and order on Thursday.

“LUBA got this right,” Seely said. “Our farm — which has been here for generations — our business, and our community would be negatively impacted by the rail yard and refinery.”

Dan Serres, conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper, said LUBA’s decision exposes “the unmistakable impact of a large rail yard on neighbors and water resources.”

“This is a major setback for the proposed refinery and rail yard, which pose a major threat to the health of the community and clean water in the lower Columbia River,” Serres said.

Michael Hinrichs, a spokesman for Next, downplayed the significance of the LUBA ruling. He said the refinery is dependent on the deep-water dock on the Columbia River to bring in feedstocks for making renewable diesel, and shipping the final product.

Rail deliveries were only to be used for worst-case scenarios, Hinrichs said, such as if the river was shut down to commercial maritime traffic.

“As we see it, LUBA took it upon itself to adopt a new interpretation of state and local law,” Hinrichs said. “The permit they reviewed accommodated a design request from the rail operator and local farmers. This decision essentially overturned community interests that had previously been approved by the county commission.”

Hinrichs said the company is reviewing its options and will evaluate whether it needs to reapply for the rail permit.

More permits needed

Meanwhile, Next continues to chase a slew of other state and federal permits needed for the refinery to begin construction.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality approved a milestone air quality permit in August. DEQ must also decide whether to certify the project under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, addressing potential spills into the Columbia River.

On the federal side, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is scheduled to release its draft environmental analysis early next year, Serres said.

Then there is the controversy over wetlands mitigation for the refinery, as required by the Oregon Department of State Lands.

Since construction will affect about 117 acres of wetland habitat at Port Westward, State Lands ordered Next to enhance or rehabilitate 476 acres of wetlands elsewhere to compensate.

The company scouted locations along a 40-mile stretch of the Columbia River before deciding on a site within the former GreenWood Resources Lower Columbia Tree Farm, about a mile from the refinery site.

That property, however, is also part of the Beaver Slough Drainage District. Landowners there worry the wetlands mitigation will alter the landscape and interfere with the district’s ability to maintain its water pumps and ditches, threatening to destroy farms.

State Lands issued a permit for Next to proceed with mitigation, which the drainage district appealed.

Settlement nixed

On Oct. 21, the district voted to drop its appeal, while simultaneously rejecting a settlement offer from Next that would have promised $3.5 million over 10 years.

In exchange, the district would have agreed not to oppose the refinery in any other way.

Jasmine Lillich, a farmer and organizer with the community group Save Port Westward, said that by nixing the settlement, the district retains its ability to raise concerns and file future legal challenges to the project.

“It’s just a huge statement for the integrity of the folks out there; $3.5 million is not the price tag of our freedom and our farmland,” she said.

According to the resolution passed by the district, dropping the Department of State Lands permit appeal “will enhance the (district’s) ability to meaningfully regulate the project and impacts on (district) works and operations.”

Warren Seely, Mike Seely’s son and district president, did not immediately return calls for comment.

In a press release, Chris Efird, CEO of Next, said the company was “thrilled” to learn the district would drop its appeal.

” This is a win for NEXT and we look forward to maintaining our positive and collaborative relationship with the (district) board of directors and members,” he said.

-George Plaven

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