Union members pack hearing on renewable fuel refinery

Nate Stokes of IUOE Local 701 was one of dozens to testify. | Photo by Don McIntosh

By DON McINTOSH

Construction union members, officers, and staff packed the Columbia County Courthouse Jan. 10, completely filling a hearing room and an overflow room. They were there to send a message of support for a proposed renewable diesel refinery at the Port Westward Industrial Park in Clatskanie. Rainier Mayor Jerry Cole and other community members also spoke in support.

NXT Clean Fuels proposes to invest $2.5 billion to construct the facility, which would convert used cooking oil and other feed stocks into renewable diesel and aviation fuel. NXT has committed to use union labor in construction and to remain neutral if production workers unionize once the plant is in operation.

The three-member Columbia County Commission was holding a hearing on the project because NXT needs their permission to construct a 1,200-foot branch rail line through land that’s zoned for agricultural use. The County Commission previously approved the project, but NXT resubmitted the proposal with a scaled down rail footprint after a decision by the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals.

At the hearing, Commissioners heard from county planning and from NXT, and then took public comment, first 100 minutes of testimony from supporters, then 80 minutes of testimony from opponents — all but a handful of whom joined the meeting online.

IBEW Local 48 business manager Garth Bachman, who lives in Scappoose, called it an amazing opportunity for the local economy.

“We have 218 members that live in Columbia County, another 74 in Clatsop County, and 237 in Cowlitz County,” Bachman told commissioners. “The size and duration of this project will allow those members the chance to work near home and spend more time with their families instead of commuting. It will also give local residents a chance to start in the trades through our state-of-the-art apprenticeship programs… This is my home and I want it to be a successful, thriving community.”

The conservation groups Columbia Riverkeeper and 1,000 Friends of Oregon organized opposition to the project.

“If I’d wanted to live near a refinery, I’d have bought property in Longview,” said a man who said he just bought property a mile away from the proposed project. The project is in a designated industrial area.

Garrett Stephenson, a land use attorney representing NXT, said it’s understandable a landowner would be concerned about something nearby. “But the end of the day, this is the land that the county has set aside for this type of use, and we are entirely consistent with it.”

The property NXT wants to develop was the site of a lumber mill in the 19th century, then was in agricultural and military use. Since 1984 it’s been zoned for industrial use, and this is the first project that’s ready to build.

The commission expects to make its decision March 6, and county planning staff are recommending approval, because NXT satisfied all the legal requirements to build .

NXT spokesperson Michael Hinrichs said the company anticipates the project will get the approval of the county commission and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and could break ground in late 2024.

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