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NEXT Energy wants to develop 80-acre site near Port Westward, hire 210 people

A $1.1 billion fuel production facility proposed for Port Westward is inching closer to reality.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Port commissioners listen to a presentation from Lou Soumas of NEXT Energy Group, Inc. NEXT Energy is proposing a $1.1 billion renewable fuel processing plant in Clatskanie.NEXT Energy Group, Inc. announced plans in July for a new renewable fuel production site that would yield 37,500 barrels a day of renewable diesel and propane, along with "green jet fuels."

The company is currently scoping out land owned by the Port of Columbia County in Clatskanie, near the Port Westward Industrial Park.

If the project is approved, it would be the largest renewable fuel center in North America, according to NEXT Energy.

Port commissioners got an overview of the ambitious project Wednesday, Aug. 22 and are slated to review and vote on a site development and option to lease with the company in the coming months.

"We're very interested in the Port Westward site," Lou Soumas of NEXT Energy told the Spotlight in July. "We like Columbia County. We've looked at that county with some other projects in the past, but because they were more rail dependent, we couldn't locate there."

As proposed, NEXT Energy would construct a new site on an 80 acre property owned by the port and employ about 210 people at wages ranging from $42,000 to $200,000, with an average wage of $78,000. Soumas stressed that NEXT Energy would seek out the majority of its employees from Columbia County.

The property is currently part of an 837-acre parcel map amendment and rezone request being taken up by the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals.

"At this point, you don't really have land you could lease that's zoned properly," Soumas told port commissioners Wednesday.

"If this project were to go live as we're currently hoping in the summer of 2021, we'd have people out there by 2020," Soumas said.

NEXT Energy would produce what it calls "second generation advanced biofuel" made from renewable feedstock like vegetable oils, animal fats and used cooking oil. The result is cleaner and more pure than biodiesel, the company claims.

"Because we're working with organic oil, you don't get all the stuff that comes out of typical fuel," Soumas said.

Fuel product and feedstock would be shipped in and out by barge, according to the project proposal.

The project isn't guaranteed to be developed in Columbia County, but the port says the Clatskanie site is currently the only one being considered by the company. Furthermore, NEXT Energy representatives have been quietly meeting with county and city officials to talk about the proposal and bring them up to speed.

PORT OF COLUMBIA COUNTY PHOTO - Existing dock infrastructure and storage tanks would be utilized by NEXT Energy if the company proceeds with a new fuel processing plant near Port Westward.While the promise of local, family wage jobs and top notch safety monitoring procedures at the site were heavily emphasized, what impressed commissioners was the energy company's claims that it will not seek tax abatement programs, as many large scale companies do when they set up shop in Columbia County.

"This project becomes a member of the community, so it needs to pay its fair share," Soumas said.

"I really appreciate your views on tax abatement," Commissioner Larry Ericksen told Soumas. "It sounds like you really understand how important [tax revenue] is to our county."

Company has ties to failed projects

NEXT Energy also has operated as Waterside Energy and Riverside Energy, and representatives have also been connected to several other company names, including Transmessis Columbia Plateau, LLC.

In 2015, Transmessis Columbia Plateau was the subject of a lawsuit alleging nearly $1.7 million in unpaid invoices for canola seed deliveries.

Waterside was also at the center of a controversial renewable fuel plant in Odessa, Wash., which was fraught with environmental violations.

Soumas said his company was asked to come in and help clean up the site and turn it around, but left shortly afterward.

"We cleaned the place up and operated for about six months and found out that a lot of the representations made were [not truthful]," Soumas explained. Soumas said his energy company cleaned up the site and "handed it back," but a 2016 news report from OPB indicates Waterside abandoned the site and laid off workers without notifying state regulators.

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