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Columbia County commissioners approved permits for the controversial biofuel facility proposed near Clatskanie.

COURTESY ILLUSTRATION - A rendering shows the NEXT Renewable Fuels proposed biofuel facility at Port Westward.Columbia County commissioners unanimously approved permits for NEXT Renewable Fuels' proposed biofuel facility Wednesday, Feb. 9.

The three commissioners voted to grant a permit for the land use and design and a permit for a rail branch line.

The vote followed the recommendation from outside consultants with Winterowd Planning, who were hired by the county to complete the review and staff report for NEXT's applications.

The commissioners' decision isn't considered final until it is put in writing and notice is sent out. County counsel Robin McIntyre said the final order will be brought to commissioners for approval later this month.

The county had already passed the 150-day legal deadline to approve the permits, but NEXT agreed to extend the approval process, McIntyre said, on the condition that the board take its vote no later than Wednesday.

"I think the bottom line is our job is to determine whether the application meets the criteria laid out here. And the application is thorough, and the staff report is thorough," Commissioner Casey Garrett said before voting in favor of the permits. "I think they provided a path for success for the project as long as it meets the conditions laid out, and I look forward to seeing the project be successful."

The conditions of approval have been amended since January, including the addition of restrictions on the number of truck and rail trips.

Rail transport to and from the site is limited to 318 cars per week, with no trains longer than 100 cars.

If more than 20 truck trips per day for feedstock or fuel are required, NEXT will have to seek an amendment to its site design review and complete a revised traffic impact study.

The staff report recommended approving NEXT's two applications if the county commissioners agree with three overarching conclusions: that the wetlands on the project site are not "significant"; that the facility and site development like the rail branchline are "water-related"; and that the rail development plans meet the definition of a "rail branchline."

"We are ecstatic that the Board of Commissioners approved our permits," NEXT chief executive officer Chris Efird said in a press release following the county commissioners' vote. "With these key local permits, we move another step closer to construction. We are grateful for the outpouring of supportive comments from local community leaders and environmental experts."

The county received more than 100 written comments and heard public testimony from more than 50 people during a meeting last month.

The majority of the comments were in opposition to NEXT's project, but local leaders in North County, like Clatskanie City Manager Greg Hinkelman and Clatskanie School District Superintendent Cathy Hurowitz, spoke in support of NEXT.

Critics have said that the project could result in devastating environmental impacts, harming local wildlife and neighboring farmers.

"There are folks out there that may think that green energy is only wind turbines or solar panels, or things of that nature," Commissioner Henry Heimuller said before the vote. "But when you see a project that is going to produce a product that reduces the amount of fossil fuels used in providing transportation around our state and our region, that is a start. And it's green, and it gets us there."

Dan Serres, conservation director of Columbia Riverkeeper, said in January that the organization does "not oppose the concept of renewable diesel."

"But we do oppose this particular project by this particular group, in this very sensitive environmental area … surrounded by high-value agriculture," Serres said.

NEXT plans to produce a drop-in diesel fuel replacement made with organic feedstock like vegetable oil and used cooking oil.

Construction on the facility will create more than 3,500 jobs, according to a NEXT press release. Operating the facility will create more than 240 permanent jobs, NEXT said.

The county's decision doesn't clear all of the hurdles for NEXT before it can begin construction. The company is still awaiting permit approval from the Oregon Department of State Lands, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.


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