CLATSKANIE, Ore. — Lofty plans for a potential renewable fuel facility at Port Westward may face delays after an Oregon state department last month denied a key water quality permit.
NEXT Renewable Fuels is attempting to move ahead with its proposed $2 billion green fuels facility in and around Columbia County’s Port Westward Industrial Park, which they claim will annually save 7 million metric tons of emissions by converting vegetable oils and animal fat into clean diesel.
Backed by local unions and economic development groups, the project has faced a lengthy process since NEXT first secured a 30-year lease with the Port of Columbia County in September 2019.
Opponents to the project include environmental groups and farmers who are concerned about how the facility could affect the land around the port.
Awaiting decisions for multiple permits and legal appeals, the Houston-headquartered company earlier this year secured approval for an essential air quality permit and possible land-use changes.
Still, NEXT is at least several months away from being able to break ground on the project after the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality last month denied NEXT’s water quality permit, citing unanswered questions about the project.
“We are disappointed in Oregon DEQ’s inability to process our Section 401 water certification within their statutory timeline of a year, but we will keep working with them as we refile and start the permitting clock once again,” NEXT Communications Director Michael Hinrichs wrote in an emailed response to The Daily News. “This is not at all a roadblock, but rather an unnecessary distraction to the permitting process as we advance toward full project approval. Our project timeline remains unchanged.”
Challenges to proposed site
Port Westward Industrial Park hosts both agriculture and industry, including Portland General Electric, Global Partners’ Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery, Columbia River Ranch and the Seely Mint Farm.
Though Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery still uses fossil fuels, the site in 2020 started to ship renewable diesel, according to Global Clatskanie. Some research has suggested using natural oils rather than petroleum for fuel could help states pivot toward greener climate solutions.
NEXT’s project prompted backlash from nearby farmers who have advocated against building on traditionally agricultural land because they say it may affect farming practices and crop growth.
“NEXT hasn’t been able to tell a straight story to the community or to DEQ,” said Jasmine Lillich, a local farmer and fifth-generation resident of the Clatskanie area. “DEQ was right to deny this (water quality) permit. Our community would face the risk of significant water pollution that could harm our health, our homes and our farms, and we stand firm with many of our neighbors against this project.”
NEXT has promised to dedicate resources to wetland mitigation, and they contend the renewable fuel facility will have overarching environmental benefits.
Columbia Riverkeeper has challenged whether or not NEXT can legally build a rail line in traditionally agricultural land, an appeal currently under review by the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals.
The legal advocacy group said in a news release the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s most recent ruling bolstered arguments against NEXT’s proposed project.
“NEXT’s application materials were riddled with inconsistencies, and NEXT was apparently unable to answer even DEQ’s basic questions,” said Audrey Leonard, staff attorney at Columbia Riverkeeper. “Between this permit denial and fierce opposition from neighboring farmers, the future of NEXT’s controversial proposal is far from certain.”
This marks the second time since September 2021 the department has turned down NEXT’s water quality permit, both times citing unanswered questions about how exactly the company planned to mitigate pollution on the site, which is surrounded by wetlands and local farms.
Hinrichs said NEXT updated and filed a new application in October 2021 immediately after this first denial but did not hear first comments from the department staff until seven months later “despite our team’s consistent engagement with DEQ staff.”
“Our team worked diligently to gather all requested information in a timely fashion, but further delays at DEQ stifled progress until they issued an additional data request in the 11th hour (August 2022),” Hinrichs wrote in the email. “Further, the information DEQ requested is mostly related to our federal permitting process and outside of the agency’s scope for what is needed to process our state water certification.”
NEXT in August secured an air quality permit that remains in place despite this water quality permit denial. If their separate application for a removal/fill permit is turned down, NEXT is at risk of losing this air quality permit.
NEXT can and will reapply for the water quality permit, Hinrichs said.
The project also needs the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct an environmental impact study, which will help their case if they have all required local permits.
Tightening environmental standards
Oregon is known for its strict standards when it comes to air and water quality as it tries to move toward cleaner fuel options like renewable diesel, according to a news release from the Oregon Environmental Council.
The Oregon Environmental Quality Commission on Sept. 23 adopted new rules expanding the Clean Fuels program to reach a goal of transportation fuel emission to be 20% below 2015 levels by 2030 and 37% by 2035.
“The Clean Fuels Program is a proven example of how the transition off of harmful fossil fuels can create jobs and support vibrant local economies in Oregon,” said Nora Apter, Climate Program Director for the Oregon Environmental Council.