Elected officials, others testify at Port Commission meeting, including discussion on increasing rail traffic

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - More than 60 people attended a Port of St. Helens worksession in Deer Island Wednesday, Oct. 23, where Global Partners LP discussed its plans to create jobs at its Port Westward plant if port commissioners will approve its request to increase the number of unit trains it can bring to the industrial park north of Clatskanie. In the foreground is state Rep. Brad Witt, who represents Clatskanie in the Oregon House of Representatives.The company that purchased the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery at the Port Westward industrial park north of Clatskanie earlier this year wants to invest $50 million to $70 million in its local operations, a top executive said at a well-attended Port of St. Helens worksession Wednesday, Oct. 23.

William Davidson, senior vice president of Massachusetts-based Global Partners LP, said his company would add at least 30 new jobs as a result of expanding its operations at Port Westward.

But an important component of the plan requires port commissioners' approval.

Global wants to double its maximum allowance of 17 unit trains per month entering Port Westward — as well as expand ship docks on the Columbia River — in order to boost the bio-refinery's capacity.

“We think this can be a wonderful success story. We really think there's an opportunity here to do something very special,” Davidson said. “We are here. We are ready to go.”

Officials from the Portland and Western Railroad, which owns the tracks that run from the Linnton neighborhood of Portland up to Port Westward, and its parent company, Genesee and Wyoming Inc., also spoke at Wednesday's work session.

G&W Senior Vice President Joel Hackett said the railroad would add another 20 local jobs if the Global project and desired rail improvements go through as planned. Among the changes the railroad is seeking is an increase in train speed between Linnton and Port Westward from 10 mph to 25 mph.

“We need to increase the speed of trains,” Hackett said. “I have to increase the speed. I cannot handle the volume of freight if I don't.”

After hearing from Global and railroad representatives, several port commissioners said they want to see a firm commitment to rail improvements before they sign off on increasing Global's unit train cap to 34 trains per month.

Commissioner Mike Avent highlighted the precarious state of the rail corridor through his hometown of Rainier, where the railroad runs directly alongside A Street through the city's downtown.

“What happens if all the promises don't come true?” Avent wondered. “We get the impact, but mitigation doesn't get done, and we're living with the consequences.”

“Within the next couple of weeks, we need to find a way that this commission is confident that we can grant this authority and not make this problem worse,” said commission President Robert Keyser.

Several other elected officials attended and spoke at the worksession, which was held at the Columbia River People's Utility District building in Deer Island to accommodate the large number of speakers.

St. Helens Mayor Randy Peterson said economic development comes with costs that local authorities should be prepared to cope with if they want job creation in Columbia County.

“Anybody who thinks that we're going to be able to do that without impacts has another thing coming,” Peterson said. “So we have to be able to deal with the impacts, but nobody is going to be able to recruit this kind of company, or any other kind of company, if we say to them, 'Come and do business, but don't impact us in any way.'”

State Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, was one of more than a dozen people in the audience wearing yellow United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 shirts. He said he was addressing the commission as a union representative.

“I think with the number of people here that you see from our union, it is a testament to the confidence and faith that we have in [Global Partners] and in their style of management,” Witt said,.

Witt was far from the only person at the worksession to praise the company.

The mayors of Clatskanie and Rainier lauded Global for reaching out to their communities since it arrived in the county this February, while Mark Ellsworth, who works in Gov. John Kitzhaber's office, touted its investment in the Clatskanie community.

Tim McCabe, director of Business Oregon, said of the Global proposal, “For 18 years, I can count on one hand opportunities like this that have come to the state.”

Some who spoke at the worksession voiced reservations about the idea of allowing more unit train traffic through Columbia County.

Rainier Mayor Jerry Cole echoed Avent in suggesting an enforcement mechanism may be needed to ensure his city gets the rail improvements it has been requesting for many years.

“When I give my daughter things, you know, I go, 'OK, I'm going to give this to you, but you know, if you don't do X-Y-Z, I'm going to take it away,'” Cole said. “So if you have some doubts with the rail and the state not coming through on the back end after you say yes … write it in there that you can take it away. And then there's your assurance.”

Darrel Whipple of Rainier, one of the only people who testified in opposition to Global's request Wednesday, said he thinks the Port Commission would “have the cart before the horse” if it approved the cap increase before securing rail safety improvements.

Whipple asked, “Why would you increase the cap at this point unless you already have an obligation secured to Global Partners that it will happen? And I'm not aware that you do.”

Keyser said the Port Commission will consider whether to approve a resolution raising the unit train cap for Port Westward at its Nov. 13 meeting. He invited members of the public to submit comments by mail or email to the port by Nov. 6 in order to enter them into the record for commissioners' consideration.

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