Columbia County commissioners announce 3rd hearing on Oct. 9

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Rainier City Councilor Steve Massey reads a letter from the Rainier City Council opposing the proposed rezoning of land adjacent to the Port Westward industrial park at a hearing in Clatskanie Thursday, Oct. 3.Almost 50 people opposed to the Port of St. Helens' application to expand the Port Westward industrial park testified before the Columbia County Board of County Commissioners Thursday, Oct. 3, in Clatskanie, the city nearest to the energy park on the Columbia River.

Scores of people turned out for the second hearing county commissioners held in the Clatskanie Middle/High School auditorium to consider whether to approve the rezoning of 957 acres of agricultural and forestry land adjacent to Port Westward for heavy industrial use.

Opponents from across the county, as well as some from outside it, advanced several arguments against the proposed rezoning.

Clatskanie farmers such as Mike Seely, George Poysky and Jeff Whittaker said that if dirty industrial moves onto newly available land at Port Westward, it could contaminate their crops and force them to shut down or move elsewhere.

“I hope you don't forget the little guys like me. We fully expect to grow, to be a lot larger,” said Seely. “We would like to do it right here in Clatskanie. That said, the potential for crop losses and damage resulting from industries that you're proposing here are not compatible to the surrounding operations, such as ours.”

Others, like former Columbia Soil and Water Conservation District Director Bill Eagle, said what some described as “prime” farmland should not be converted for industrial use.

“As industrial lands grow, agricultural lands are disappearing in Columbia County,” Eagle said.

Many who testified, especially those from communities like Columbia City, Rainier, Scappoose and St. Helens that could be affected by an increase in train traffic associated with potential new projects at an enlarged Port Westward, said they feared the prospective economic, environmental and public safety impacts that could come along with more trains.

Robert Campbell of Columbia City said, “This increase in train traffic will cause long delays along Highway 30, slow down response times for police and fire departments, and disrupt access to local businesses.”

“I see a very substantial, detrimental impact from this hitting south [Columbia] County,” said Brian Rosenthal, a Scappoose real estate investor. He said uncertainty over a prospective spike in rail traffic has prompted him to be more cautious about his investments in the community, and he suggested it could discourage potential developments at another Port of St. Helens property, the Scappoose Industrial Airpark, which is located across the railroad tracks from Highway 30.

Still others focused their remarks on the environmental impact they said industrial development could have on wetlands and riverine habitat near Port Westward. This group of speakers included both Columbia County residents and people from Portland, Hood River and Kelso, Wash., speaking on behalf of environmental groups, such as Columbia Riverkeeper, Friends of the Columbia Gorge and the Willapa Hills Audubon Society.

Darrel Whipple of Rainier warned that “first-class wildlife habitat” could be threatened if large ship docks are built on land adjacent to the existing Port Westward site, while Kelso resident Roy Staples said a coal development near Clatskanie would risk making the region “the armpit of the Pacific Northwest.”

Many who testified criticized the Port of St. Helens for not going into more detail about what applications could move onto the land being considered for rezoning — port officials have said that they are keeping their options open and have no specific uses in mind — and admonished county commissioners to follow the Columbia County Planning Commission's June recommendation to deny the proposal. Some went further than that, questioning the credibility of port and county leaders themselves.

“I am so discouraged by the process of this hearing that I feel the fix is in,” Scappoose resident Nancy Ward told the county commissioners. “I just don't feel that any part of this has been done fairly. I hope I'm wrong. I actually voted for some of you. I'm not sure I'll do that again.”

“The basic problem here is not the rezoning request, but that I don't trust the port, or frankly, you, the county commissioners,” said Brady Preheim, also of Scappoose, directly after Ward's testimony. “You have both have a history of poor decision-making, being as transparent as mud and outright lying.”

A couple of proponents of the rezoning application were allowed time at the end of the hearing to offer a rebuttal, as permitted under Oregon state law.

Jim Dayton, a locomotive engineer and union representative, said, “I've heard a lot of testimony today about how awful trains are. These lights are on because of the stuff we haul.”

Two members of the audience interrupted to dispute Dayton's argument before they were silenced by County Commissioner Henry Heimuller banging his gavel. Dayton added that the hydroelectric dams that supply much of the Pacific Northwest's energy also have an environmental impact.

“Every form of energy resource has — there are things that happen with it,” Dayton said.

After Dayton's testimony, County Commissioner Henry Heimuller announced the hearing had reached the three-hour mark and gaveled it to a close. He said it will resume in the Clatskanie Middle/High auditorium at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 9.

County commissioners held their first hearing on the proposed Port Westward rezoning last month in the same location. That Sept. 18 hearing concluded before opponents were given a chance to address the board — frustrating some attendees, many of whom drove up to Clatskanie from south Columbia County or Portland, who had intended to testify against the proposal.

A number of opponents of the application who had signed up to testify did not attend Thursday's hearing, prompting Heimuller to skip to the next name on the list, and sometimes several names in a row, multiple times throughout the evening.

Clatskanie was not the only venue where concerns over coal were aired in Oregon Thursday.

Morning commuters over the Hawthorne Bridge in downtown Portland were greeted by the sight of a sign on a boat, floated by the Power Past Coal coalition, imploring Gov. John Kitzhaber to “save us from dirty coal.”

Port of St. Helens officials have repeatedly said that no coal developments, aside from a proposal by Ambre Energy to transport coal to Port Westward via covered barge, are currently being considered for the energy park.

Port Commission President Robert Keyser indicated last month that the withdrawal of Kinder Morgan from plans to build a coal terminal at Port Westward earlier this year had soured port commissioners, at least for now, on the idea of another coal project at the site.

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