The Port of Columbia County has delayed a vote on a high-profile lease to NEXT Renewable Fuels.
The request to postpone the vote came from commissioners at the last of four public forums, which included two regular port commission meetings, a special town hall-format meeting in Columbia City, and an open house hosted by NEXT in Clatskanie in July.
Port Commission President Larry Ericksen said that he and Commissioner Nancy Ward had discussed Ward's desire to have more time to review the lease and get up to speed, having been sworn in as commissioner just last month.
Commissioner Robert Keyser expressed frustration with the delay.
"If you need more time, fine," Keyser said, "but are we going to be assured that at some point before your four-year term is up, we can vote on this lease?"
Under the lease, NEXT can produce 50,000 barrels, or 2.1 million gallons, of renewable fuel each day.
The proposed lease allows NEXT to continue paying their current $15,000 monthly rate for the first two years, and then pay $107,800 per month, which will be adjusted annually in line with inflation.
Commissioners suggested changes to the lease that will be compiled by the port's legal counsel and brought back to the commission at the next meeting, which will be held Aug. 28.
Those recommended changes include an increase in the amount of insurance required.
Commissioners also debated the amount NEXT should be required to have as a reserve account, which would provide some level of protection for the port if NEXT suddenly fell apart.
"The last man standing is going to be held accountable — not necessarily the offender," Commissioner Chris Iverson said during the lease review.
Some environmental advocates have pushed the port to scrap the project altogether, while many more community members have advocated for changes to the lease.
NEXT Renewable Fuels, founded by Lou Soumas, wants to build a facility at Port Westward to produce bio-fuel made from used cooking oils, animal tallows, seed oil and soy oil. Soumas has repeatedly said the operations will not use virgin palm oil, but could not guarantee that there won't be any processed palm oil within the feedstock supplied by BP.
At the town hall in Clatskanie, Soumas outlined his plans for employment at the facility. The facility is projected to create more than 200 full-time family-wage jobs, generating more than $23 million in wages and benefits each year.
In the year before the facility opens, NEXT will start an operator training program, where participants will be paid while they undergo training to then work in the facility. Constructing the facility will take years, with operations expected to commence at the end of 2021 or later.
"The reason we're trying to finish up the lease right now with the port is because we are able to embark on a spend of about $60 million," Soumas said.
NEXT is developing a project labor agreement with unions to set the safety standards, working conditions and wages for all construction workers involved in building the facility. The company has also signed a neutrality agreement with a union that could potentially represent future employees at the site.
Soumas acknowledged that some higher-level positions with specialized skills will likely require applicants outside of the county, but said NEXT is committed to hiring local.
"We figure about 12 to 15 of those 200 employees will be people we bring in who have extensive knowledge of the industry. Everybody else will be trained to work in the plant," Soumas explained. "We typically hire people into a training program, we don't hire into the plant... If you make it to the training program and pass the training program, you're eligible to work."
Additionally, Soumas said NEXT is not interested in taking any state tax breaks, including the property tax exemption that they would be eligible for in the county's enterprise zone.
"We want to take that money, instead of being exempt from property taxes, we want to put it back into the community," Soumas told an audience in Clatskanie.
Both NEXT's feedstock and finished products will be transported via ship, meaning rail traffic will not increase after construction, alleviating one of the community's largest concerns with the project.
In Clatskanie, Soumas spoke about encouraging local schools to support young students preparing for future employment at the facility.
Greg Hinkelman, Clatskanie's City Manager, said NEXT would provide much-needed jobs. "When seniors graduate high school, they leave the town, they don't come back. They don't come back because they do not have jobs," Hinkelman said.
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