The Port of Columbia County board of commissioners approved an amendment to the lease option agreement with NEXT Renewable Fuels at the board's June 5 meeting. The amendment adds an 80-acre parcel neighboring NEXT's 25-acre parcel.
NEXT's lease option amendment brings the company one step closer to building a planned $1 billion biofuel facility, which NEXT President Lou Soumas said will employ 200 local workers.
The newly added parcel is the same parcel vacated by NW Innovation Works last month.
Critics of NEXT, including Dan Serres, conservation director for the environmental advocacy organization Columbia Riverkeeper, asked port commissioners to delay a vote on the amendment.
The amendment contract requires NEXT to provide the port with schematic designs by June 30.
"It seems like you should have that on the front end," Serres said. "Why not wait to have that (to) provide some clarity to yourselves and the public about what exactly is involved with this facility?" Serres asked commissioners.
"You've had some available industrial land in your pocket for about two weeks, so I'm not sure what the rush is to immediately enter into a new lease option agreement for NEXT energy. It seems like you should take your time to make sure it's done correctly. I hope it's not an effort to rush this decision before two new commissioners are seated and might have an opportunity to ask questions as well," Serres added.
Soumas denied that the project was rushed.
"This hasn't been two weeks ... We've spent, since last July, almost 12 months and $3.5 million developing around Port Westward. We finally have the chance to drop that development on a piece of land," Soumas said.
Soumas explained that port staff have regularly reviewed preliminary designs, but that those schematic designs could not be left with port officials until they were finalized as documents provided to the port would become public record, violating nondisclosure agreements NEXT has with other groups.
Though port staff have seen schematics, the port commissioners who voted on the amendment have not reviewed detailed schematics, according to port Executive Director Doug Hayes.
Brady Preheim, of St. Helens, requested that the port delay a vote until the newly elected commissioners take their seats. Preheim said the results of the May 21 election, in which newcomers Chip Bubl and Nancy Ward defeated incumbents in both contested races, showed that citizens of Columbia County want a change.
With many port projects, community members have routinely raised concerns about agricultural land loss, environmental safety and train safety. But for some residents of Clatskanie, those concerns, often levied by residents of Scappoose and St. Helens, have jeopardized much-needed economic development.
Clatskanie Mayor Bob Brajcich advocated in support of NEXT.
"We would like to see farmland, but farmland and tourism is not going to pay our economic bills. We need industry, we need jobs," Brajcich said.
Though critics have repeatedly mentioned Soumas' history from past projects, including Waterside Energy, which was involved in the failed TransMessis Columbia Plateau biofuel operation in eastern Washington, port commissioners said they believe Soumas and NEXT deserved a shot.
"I put the project slightly over 50% (probability) right now, because I have a history of seeing a lot of projects come unannounced and go — and not just at Port Westward, but everywhere," Commissioner Robert Keyser said.