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Following management shakeup, NEXT Renewable Fuels has submitted permit applications for billion dollar project

NEXT Renewable Fuels is moving forward on the permitting process for its proposed biofuel production facility at Port Westward.

The company submitted its major permits earlier this year.

"We are working through the process and hope to be fully permitted by early 2022," Chris Efird, NEXT's executive chairman, said via a spokesperson. "We are also continuing to advance our engineering and design and are working with our of our major technology providers on the specifics of our site design."

At a Port of Columbia County board meeting in March, Efird told port commissioners that the initial comments received on the permit applications were "lighter than expected."

Efird said the company had moved into the next phase of engineering, and was preparing to kick off full front-end engineering and design work in early summer.

Efird told the Spotlight that the company expects to start construction "nearly immediately after permit approval, so early 2022." NEXT aims to open operations within the first three months of 2024.

The project timeline has been delayed multiple times.

Back in 2018, NEXT had aimed to start operations in 2021. By the fall of 2019, when the Port of Columbia County approved a lease with NEXT for 94 acres at Port Westward, the company said it intended to start fuel production in 2022.

Kelly Merritt, a former Clatskanie resident, joined NEXT in January as senior vice president of development.

"I'm very happy to be here to help basically reset our clock," Merritt told Columbia County's board of commissioners in February. "This last year has had an incredible amount of global change that's affected everyone, it's even affected NEXT as they are going through the permit process."

The company's president, Lou Soumas, was fired in November after being arrested on child sex abuse charges in Texas.

In early March, the company named Gene Cotten the new president of NEXT. Cotten had been hired as senior vice president for project execution and engineering in October 2020, after three years advising NEXT.

When completed, the facility will produce biofuel made from recycled organic material.

"We are on track to invest more than $1.5 billion in the Port Westward facility and anticipate initially producing approximately 600 million gallons per year of renewable diesel," Efird told the Spotlight. "This facility will require several thousand workers to build during the construction period. NEXT has entered into memorandums of understanding with the Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council and the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters for construction of the project."

NEXT also previously signed a "card check" agreement with UFCW 555, which says that NEXT will remain neutral in any future union organizing efforts for staff at the facility, and allow UFCW to hold meetings on site during non-working hours.

The company originally said it would hire 200 employees, with only a couple dozen requiring specialized skills and experience that may mean hiring from outside the county. Most jobs would go to local residents who would undergo training.

NEXT has since increased the hiring estimate to "at least 240 high-paying jobs in a variety of plant operating roles."


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