Proposed explosives storage plant has residents on edge in Woodland

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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A proposed explosives storage plant in Woodland has raised the ire of nearby residents concerned about potential safety hazards who are doubtful that Cowlitz County officials asked the necessary questions to determine whether such a facility belongs in their backyard.

Officials with Northwest Energetics, the Seal Rock, Ore.-based company pushing for the plant near Butte Hill Road, insisted the facility and the trucks transporting ammonium nitrate to and from the site would follow stringent state and federal safety guidelines.

Meanwhile, Cowlitz officials rejected accusations that they have not been forthcoming with residents, noting a meeting to discuss road safety near the plant and environmental checklists would be held later this month. The date and location of the public meeting has not yet been set, Cowlitz County Commissioner Michael Karnofski said.

Northwest Energetics, a joint venture of Orica, the world’s leading supplier of explosives, purchased land last year on Butte Hill, four miles east of Woodland, from Woodland-based logger Craig Chilton and two other landowners Longview Timber and a woman with the last name Andrews, whose first name was not immediately known. It intends to consolidating two existing plants, one in Oregon and the other in Washington. The land has since been changed from non-zoned forestland to commercially zoned, a fact Butte Hill’s 180 or so residents are not thrilled about.

“We’re sort of frightened by this whole thing,” Butte Hill resident Eyck Bernardy, 70, said. “Here you have a giant corporation making itself at home in our neighborhood.”

Trucks carrying ammonium nitrate would be asked to navigate a steep, winding road. Residents fear one crash would spark an environmental disaster such as a forest fire or widespread water contamination in an area that depends on wells for water. They questioned whether Northwest Energetics would turn the location into a manufacturing factory, an assertion its general manager, Ed Coulter, said was not in the company’s plans.

“I can appreciate they may have some concerns,” Coulter said, “but there are very few incidents associated with the storage of explosives manufactured somewhere else.”

“People hear explosives and automatically think it’s bad,” Chilton added, noting explosive chemicals pass through the area via railroad every day. He added, “I understand everyone’s concerns, but I believe this is absolutely being blown out of proportion.”

‘Trojan horse’

The proposed explosives storage plant could open sometime in the fall, Coulter said, noting building would likely start in May. The Butte Hill location, he explained, met the company’s need to remain a mandated distance from railways, highways and residential homes, while at the same time providing relatively easy access to Interstate 5 and the Portland metro area.

Once completed, the plant would house an undisclosed amount of ammonium nitrate and administrative offices. Around 10 to 12 people would be employed there, Coulter said. He declined to say how much ammonium nitrate would be stored there or whether around the clock security would be employed, citing safety concerns.

“We’ve followed every request and consideration all the regulatory agencies we’ve dealt with asked us to do,” Coulter said. He stressed the company attempted to be as open as possible with residents, and that, as a show of good faith, truck drivers would not use noisy Jake brakes while driving down the hill.

Still, Bernardy and others are not sure about Northwest Energetics’ motives.

“This is going to be a Trojan Horse,” Bernardy said. He predicted that once Northwest Energetics received its necessary permits, it would switch to manufacturing explosives.

Many residents were frustrated with the Cowlitz County Commissioners, and believed its three members were not as engaged with the issue as they should have been.

“Dead wrong”

Karnofski, the commissioner who represents Butte Hill, disagreed. County officials attended a meeting about the plant that Butte Hill residents sponsored in November and the county commissioners discussed the issue again at a January meeting.

Northwest Energetics submitted to the environmental studies necessary to submit building plans. Results from a road study paid for by the county were also forthcoming.

“We’re doing the best we can to follow the process,” Karnofski said.

Karnofski’s “best” was not enough to comfort Butte Hill resident Linda Gettmann, who opposes the plant.

“We’re really unsure who is looking at all the aspects of this project,” she said.

She questioned what safeguards would be enacted to prevent water contamination in the event of a spill.

“Who knows what pollution could be in that creek?” Gettmann said of nearby Robinson Creek, a trout-bearing stream. “That creek is where we get our water. Everybody’s on a well.”

The road’s viability also concerned Gettmann.

Coulter indicated Northwest Energetics would be comfortable using the road as it stands, and that the company would be opposed to paying for a new road.

Gettmann purchased her Butte Hill property from Chilton. His decision to sell land to Northwest Energetics befuddled her.

“Not only is he jeopardizing our property value but he’s jeopardizing property values for his 300 acres,” Gettmann said. “Why would he do that?”

Her best guess was he received money to clear parts of the land and also build the storage plant. Chilton submitted a bid for the plant contract, but the contract has not yet been awarded, he said.

Chilton opposed suggestions he had lowered residents’ land values.

“If I would have thought it would lower my land value, I wouldn’t do it,” he said. He noted the plant’s jobs would benefit the community.

Talk of a dozen jobs coming to town failed to alleviate residents’ concerns.

“On the face of it, they’re doing nothing illegal,” Bernardy said, noting he had contacted an attorney. “The whole concept is dead wrong. It just doesn’t belong here.”

Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; www.facebook.com/raylegend;www.twitter.com/col_smallcities;ray.legendre@columbian.com.