The Port of Columbia County's board of commissioners voted 3-2 to approve a lease with NEXT Renewable Fuels earlier this week.
The two votes in opposition of the lease came from new Commissioners Nancy Ward and Chip Bubl. Chair Larry Ericksen and Commissioners Chris Iverson and Robert Keyser voted in favor of the lease.
NEXT plans to construct a fuel production facility at Port Westward in Clatskanie, which the company said will be a $1.2 billion project with more than 200 local employees. The company currently pays a monthly leasehold rate of $15,000. When the plant becomes operational, a period defined as taking no longer than two years, NEXT will pay the port an estimated monthly rate of $107,800, per the terms of the lease.
The company expects to produce a biofuel that works similarly to traditional diesel but with a significant carbon reduction and up to 80% greenhouse gas reduction.
Throughout Keyser's time involved with the port, environmental advocates said to stop "looking to old fossil fuel models, stop thinking old school," he said.
"Now that we have a project that seems to not only be innovative but address some of the concerns of the impacts of rail... Now we're told 'this is too new, it's unproven, we need something with a track record,'" Keyser said. "Why don't you call the coal folks back and see if they'd like to run? Because they have a proven track record."
The lease was scheduled for a vote at the port's Aug. 7 meeting, but comments from commissioners and the public prompted necessary revisions to the lease. Among those were concerns from Iverson that the required insurance in the lease was insufficient protection given the size of the project.
Before the commission vote, Bubl read off a list of reasons why he would vote no.
"We know little about the ultimate financial backing of this project," Bubl wrote in his prepared comments.
Bubl said the port should have required detailed financial histories for businesses associated with NEXT President Lou Soumas and Soumas himself, financial documents for all affiliates, and summaries of past controversies that involved Soumas.
"There is a lot of debate over Mr. Soumas' role in the Transmessis project in Odessa, WA. Is there more?" Bubl wrote.
Bubl also requested documentation from private lenders involved in the project.
"This vetting process we have undertaken almost seems backward," he wrote.
During her campaign for the commission earlier this year, Ward said she was skeptical of huge projects with lofty goals.
"Risk is my number one concern," Ward said before the vote Wednesday. "We are a public agency, we are not private industry. Private industry is structured to take on big risk. Public agencies are not. This concerns me because we have taken risks at Port Westward in the past and they have proven not to be as attractive as we hope they would be."
"This is a $1.2 billion project that if it comes to fruition will be the greatest feather in the cap not just of the port but of the county. But if it is a failure it will represent another huge disappointment, especially for the schools," she said.
Keyser disagreed. "We could end up with a bunch of money and no project," he said.
At the meeting, hosted in Clatskanie, a number of community members spoke to the commission about the project's potential benefits to Clatskanie schools.
"We are lacking in some of the bare necessities," Clatskanie School Board Vice Chair Kathy Engel told commissioners.
Because the property is in the county's enterprise zone, NEXT would be eligible for a property tax exemption. In recent months, Soumas has said NEXT was not interested in any property tax exemption. After approving the lease, commissioners approved a memorandum of understanding with NEXT, which formalized NEXT's promises to pay property taxes even during the initial years of development when they would be eligible for exemption.
Over the months, critics of the project have pointed to Soumas' business history. In 2015, the EPA and Washington Department of Ecology found chemical waste left idle at theat the TransMessis Columbia Plateau facility. Soumas was one of the project operators, though in a report published by Oregon Public Broadcasting, he said he had only been involved for a few months, during which time many of the issues were resolved.
In 2016, the Port of Longview ended talks with Soumas, who had proposed a $1.25 billion facility to process crude oil and vegetable seed oil and a liquid propane terminal.
"Mr. Soumas is not here in this community because he loves us. He's here because everyone else told him no," Brady Preheim, a long-time critic of the proposal, told commissioners.