The NEXT Big Thing?

Nick Cunningham
Clatskanie farmland

A proposed refinery for Columbia County has been promoted as a win for jobs and the climate. But many residents say the project is not actually “green” — and could put farmers out of business.

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Mike Seely is a third-generation peppermint and spearmint farmer whose property lies about 3 miles northeast of Clatskanie in Columbia County. He extracts the tea and oil from the mint, which he uses to craft small-batch confections, chocolate and candy canes right on the farm. Seely candies are sold regionally in grocery stores, including Fred Meyer and New Seasons, as well as in Whole Foods around the country — and directly through his website.

“My hottest area is the Whole Foods Southeast region — Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee. Boy, they really love peppermint and sugar and chocolate,” Seely tells Oregon Business. “I just hired two more people here last week to keep up with demand.” He has 19 employees in total.

0622NEXT SeelyMintsSeely Mints, manufactured in Oregon from locally grown mint.  Photo: Joan McGuire

But while business is going well, he is worried that his farm could be at risk from a proposed refinery slated for Port Westward along the Columbia River. Seely’s mint farm sits adjacent to the site.

A company called NEXT Renewable Fuels wants to build a $2 billion facility that would use soybean oil, animal tallow, cooking grease and other agricultural wastes to produce upwards of 50,000 barrels per day of “renewable diesel.”

The proposed refinery is highly contentious in Columbia County. The massive investment is welcomed by county officials and business associations with open arms, and local unions are eyeing new employment opportunities. But at the same time, there is fervent opposition from a part of the local population.

While NEXT touts its green credentials, the environmental impact to the area could be enormous, posing risks to the Columbia River estuary. The project also threatens to disrupt a delicate system of dikes and levees that manages water levels for thousands of acres of farmland, which farmers fear could put them out of business.

Oregon and other West Coast states are seeking to promote low-carbon fuels to displace petroleum-based fuels in the transportation sector, which would cut down on air pollution and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Unlike biodiesel, which needs to be blended with conventional petroleum-based diesel to be used in cars and trucks, renewable diesel can replace diesel on a one-to-one basis. Derived from plant and animal waste products and used cooking oil, the renewable diesel produced by NEXT would have a carbon footprint 60% to 80% lower than conventional diesel.

If built, NEXT says its refinery will employ 3,500 workers during construction and 240 full-time workers once it goes online, which for now is scheduled for 2024. “What’s great about these jobs is that they’re pathways to careers,” Oregon AFL-CIO president Graham Trainor said in a statement announcing the union’s endorsement of NEXT. “We’re talking family-wage apprenticeships and long-term, career-building union jobs.”

A March 2021 economic study commissioned by NEXT predicts the project will result in $45 million in annual state and local tax revenue. The Clatskanie School District is also hoping for an influx of money if the refinery comes to fruition.

“NEXT will position Port Westward as the leader on the West Coast in the domestic production of renewable diesel and renewable jet fuel, products that have both been recognized as being instrumental in the achievement of state and federal climate goals,” says Sean P. Clark, a spokesperson for the Port of Columbia County.

But opponents point to a long list of problematic issues associated with the project. While renewable diesel is much cleaner than conventional diesel, the NEXT facility will still require a significant volume of natural gas, both to process the renewable diesel itself and to power the refinery, adding a major caveat to the “renewable” label. In addition, the refinery will release substantial levels of air pollution, including particulate matter, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds. The levels of pollution are expected to come in under state limits, but at multiple public hearings, local residents have expressed concerns about the prospect of adding more pollution to an area that is already home to existing heavy industry.

Another big concern is the potential increase in rail traffic, a point of irritation in a county where mile-long trains snarl traffic for motorists. Farmers fear more rail shipments will impede their ability to get perishable crops to market in a timely fashion.

When NEXT came to town a few years ago, company officials originally said that its operations would be concentrated almost entirely along the river, with 95% of the feedstock shipped in, and refined renewable diesel shipped out, on ship or barge.

But at a hearing held by the Columbia County commissioners in January 2022, NEXT officials admitted that their rail infrastructure could bring in the equivalent of 35% of the facility’s feedstock needs. In addition, the company said its site could store as many as 400 railcars at a time, which seemed to surprise local officials.

“I remember in the very first conversations about the potential for this renewable diesel plant and…we were assured that rail was going to be — and I’ll use the word that sticks in my mind from those conversations — ‘incidental use only,’” Columbia County Commissioner Henry Heimuller said at the public hearing. “I’m trying to figure out if we were just not given all that information up front or if the plan has changed or if the business model has changed.”

NEXT officials tried to reassure county officials and the public that its plans for rail are merely a backup option, only to be used in the event river access was interrupted. Day-to-day operations would still be concentrated on the river.

Ultimately, Columbia County commissioners approved a land-use permit in March. Mike Seely along with Columbia Riverkeeper and 1000 Friends of Oregon, two nonprofits, are appealing the county’s permit approval, arguing that the county approval of the rail depot is out of step with the agricultural-zoned land.

The company disputes that claim.

“The rail branch line is planned in accordance with Oregon’s robust land use laws,” NEXT said in a statement. “The amount of railcars, whether during normal operations or otherwise, has not changed since we submitted permit applications years ago.”

For the farming community in and around Clatskanie, by far the biggest source of contention is the mitigation proposal attached to the project. The refinery itself will eat up 117 acres of wetlands along the Columbia River. The Department of State Lands (DSL) approved a key permit for the project but said NEXT needs to do wetlands mitigation on a 3.9-to-1 ratio. That means that in order to offset the impact of the project itself, NEXT needs to establish 483 acres of new wetlands nearby.

But the proposed wetlands would threaten farmers in multiple ways. First, because wetlands by definition need to be soggy and swampy, it could attract a variety of pests.

Seely’s mint farm would border the refinery on one side, and the wetlands project on the other. “For some of these pests, we have no ability to effectively control them that isn’t cost-prohibitive,” Seely says. The European crane fly, for instance, “would really do a number on peppermint and spearmint,” he says. “They can wipe a field out in a heartbeat.”

But the problems with the mitigation project only get more complex from there. The northern edge of Columbia County is located at a bend in the Columbia River, where the river narrows just before it opens up into the wide mouth of the estuary. Water is abundant, and periodic flooding over millennia built up rich agricultural soils.

Since the early 20th century, a system of levees, ditches and dikes has helped manage water, preventing catastrophic flooding and also providing irrigation for farms. A pump system pumps out excess water during the rainy season, keeping fields from getting oversaturated.

“We have dikes. It’s like the Portland airport. The Portland airport is behind dikes that protect it from the river system. That’s the same for us, too,” Seely says. “We live 18 feet below the main water level of the Columbia River.”

0622NEXTDSC 7023landscapePhoto: Nick Cunningham

The dikes and levees are managed by the Beaver Drainage Improvement Company, a local entity, but the system is certified by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). That means that in the event of a disaster, such as a major flood or earthquake, the federal government would provide assistance in repairing and rebuilding any damaged drainage infrastructure.

However, if a big slice of the drainage district is suddenly transformed from farmland that carefully manages water levels into wetlands, then the district could lose its accreditation with the federal government.

“Basically, we’d lose our FEMA certification for a 100-year flood. Nobody understands that,” Seely says.

If that were to occur, there would be no federal assistance in the event of a disaster. It would also impose new onerous restrictions on buildings suddenly deemed to be in a much more flood-prone area.

Seely’s son, Warren, is the president of the Beaver Drainage Improvement Company. He heads up a three-person commission.

“It’s been a little bit frustrating because we have been airing these concerns for, gosh, well over a year now. We’ve submitted public comments to the Department of State Lands, Army Corps of Engineers and [the Department of Environmental Quality] pertaining to all of this. And many of our concerns have been either brushed off or ignored,” the younger Seely says.

Not only would federal assistance be at risk, but the new wetlands could complicate or disrupt the drainage district’s ability to move water around and service farmers. In order to create wetlands, the project may need to fill in ditches that are designed to ferry water away from farms and into the Clatskanie River during wet times, and move water to farms for irrigation during dry periods.

“The drainage and irrigation services that the district provides are essential to keeping land from flooding and providing water in the summer. If those services cannot be provided adequately, property and landowners are going to be lost,” says Warren Seely, who also works the farm as part of the fourth generation noted on Seely’s candy wrappers and website.

Russ Spaulding and his family have owned property within the drainage district since the 1960s, and he currently raises cattle.

“I need water to drain off where I live so that I don’t have standing water where my cattle are at,” Spaulding says. “All my ditches that are here on my farm drain into a main canal, and then that’s pumped out.” He is unsure what the installation of a large wetlands project will mean for him and his neighbors.

NEXT and proponents of the refinery frame the mitigation project as a win for the environment. “NEXT is restoring nearly 500 acres of wetlands to create diverse habitat in Columbia County,” the company says.

But for Spaulding, turning prime agricultural land into wetlands is not something to celebrate.

“This is some of the most productive farmland outside of the Willamette Valley in all of Oregon. We can grow anything here. So, it’s just…” Spaulding says, before trailing off. “I guess I don’t know what to say. It’s just sad.”

State regulators say the wetlands won’t disrupt the drainage district.

“The permittee is required to maintain the capacity of the drainage-ditch system in the mitigation area and to prevent impacts to neighboring properties,” Ali Ryan Hansen, communications manager for the Department of State Lands, tells Oregon Business. “The mitigation project doesn’t add water to the levee system or involve the dike or levees. The drainage district will continue to have access to the levee for maintenance.”

Columbia County commissioners also downplayed the risk in a statement to Oregon Business, expressing “complete confidence” in the Department of State Lands permitting process. “However, the Board is aware that some county residents have voiced concerns regarding the wetland mitigation plan. The safety of county residents and lands is a primary concern of the commissioners and the multiple organizations working to ensure that NEXT complies with all state and local guidelines,” Mark Pacheco, a spokesperson for the county commissioners, said in a statement.

NEXT’s renewable-diesel refinery is far from a done deal. While it has received local permits, much bigger obstacles lie ahead. The Army Corps of Engineers will conduct a full environmental-impact statement that should take into account all the environmental and hydrological issues that many farmers are worried about but have yet to be addressed. That is a lengthy process, which could take a year or more. Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality also needs to weigh in on air and water impacts.

At the same time, the Beaver Drainage Improvement Company might be able to block the project. The drainage district has “exclusive authority” to alter or locate drainage works, Warren Seely says. When asked if that amounted to an ability to “veto” the NEXT refinery, Seely says: “potentially.”

The background of the NEXT corporate management team is another point of contention for opponents of the refinery. The company was launched by Lou Soumas and Christopher Efird. Soumas and Efird were previously involved in a company called TransMessis Columbia Plateau LLC, which briefly operated a biodiesel-production facility in Odessa, Wash., for an eight-month period between November 2013 and June 2014. When energy markets took a downturn, TransMessis fired its workers, shuttered the facility and walked away without informing state regulators.

When an official at the Washington Department of Ecology showed up for a routine inspection in March 2015, he encountered an abandoned facility that contained improperly stored chemicals, leaking tanks and hazardous waste. Deemed to be an immediate threat to public health and safety, the state called in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which cleaned up the site at a cost of over $400,000. In addition, a fertilizer company sued TransMessis for allegedly failing to pay for over $1.5 million in canola seed that was to be used as feedstock for the biodiesel plant.

Shortly after walking away from the operation, Soumas and Efird went on to lead a separate company, Riverside Refining, which proposed building a brand-new oil refinery in Longview, Wash. The Port of Longview initially expressed interest, but ultimately, the Port commissioners rejected the project in 2016 in part due to concerns about the financial track record of the company, including the failed biodiesel plant in Odessa.

That led Soumas and Efird to propose the latest iteration of this concept for the region. This time called NEXT Renewable Fuels, the company would use spent animal and plant feedstock, and process them into renewable diesel at a refinery in Columbia County.

In 2020 Soumas was arrested on child sex abuse charges in Texas. NEXT terminated him as president and the company has since tried to distance itself from him. Efird now serves as CEO.

In a statement, NEXT defended its history.

“Yes, Chris Efird was an investor and nonexecutive board member of TransMessis, a small biodiesel company that failed due to adverse market conditions. However, the company never declared bankruptcy and paid all outstanding obligations, including everything owed to employees,” the company says.

NEXT also says that it was not responsible for the environmental mess left at the Odessa site, but that it was the fault of a different entity that took control after TransMessis shut down. “The new owner was negligent in handling the products, and this timeline and conclusion is deliberately misrepresented by opposition to the project,” NEXT says.

But opponents say this history does not inspire confidence. “Why did the Port of Longview turn them down five or six years ago?” Seely says.

“I think you’d have to call Houston-based NEXT a questionable company at this point, with untrustworthy backers through the years,” says Dan Serres, conservation director at Columbia Riverkeeper. “And it takes a lot of trust in a community like that to believe that you can build something like this without fundamentally transforming the whole area.”

Jasmine Lillich is a fifth-generation resident of Clatskanie. She spent 10 years in Southern Oregon studying and working in agriculture, but moved back to Columbia County as a result of increasing severity of wildfires and the pandemic.

0622NEXTSchillingandLillichFarmers Brandon Schilling and Jasmine Lillich outside the Clatskanie Food Hub.  Photo: Nick Cunningham

Lillich and her fiancé, Brandon Schilling, are farming on 11 acres and are active board members of the Clatskanie Farmers Market. They are helping lead an expansion of the farmers market by setting up a storefront where farmers can sell their products. Called the Clatskanie Food Hub, the initiative raised nearly $20,000 from the local community, and the Oregon Coast Visitors Association matched those efforts with a $15,000 grant to set up cold storage to build up a stronger seafood market on Highway 30.

“We’re trying to stimulate the agricultural economy here by offering a market for the products and kind of tie Highway 30 and Clatskanie into the North Coast regional food system that is really growing and doing amazing things,” Lillich says.

Lillich and Schilling see small-scale regenerative agriculture, combined with food and tourism, as the future for North Columbia County. Tons of people from Portland pass through on the way to Astoria. “We are a desirable tourist destination because we have the Clatskanie River that goes out to the Columbia. And it’s quite beautiful here and there’s a lot of rich wildlife,” Lillich says.

But this vision is incompatible with NEXT Renewable Fuels’ proposed diesel refinery, Lillich and Schilling say. In addition, preserving high-value farmland is especially important as other regions dry out and degrade as a result of the climate crisis, a reality they both experienced firsthand in Southern Oregon.

“This is not just amazing farmland. This is Class 1 and 2 soils that have taken 150,000 years to form through periodic floods from the Columbia River. It’s some of the finest farmland arguably in the world that we have at our fingertips,” Lillich says. And they are “about to be paved over by Columbia County’s industrial playground at Port Westward.”

Meanwhile, a disaster of a different sort also looms. The NEXT refinery will be located in a liquefaction zone. In the event of a major earthquake, the ground could lose stability and “liquefy,” potentially resulting in a catastrophic industrial spill. And because the low-lying land is connected by creeks, rivers, and wetlands, a spill could spread easily.

“If we have a major earthquake, the dikes will just fall apart,” Seely says. Millions of gallons of diesel sitting in storage at the NEXT refinery could spill. “And now you’ve got all that mess going down the Columbia River. And back and forth because of the tides, so you’re really messing up all the way up to Longview [Wash.], and back down to Astoria,” he says.

Schilling agrees, and says that local officials have been unwilling to listen.

“The implications are huge. And there’s really no talk or plan about how our local farmers would be compensated. How would our city be compensated? Who would pay for the cleanup?” he says. “There’s just not a lot of foresight.

0622NEXTSchillingandLillichfarmBrandon Schilling and Jasmine Lillich’s farm.  Photo: Nick Cunningham

Lillich and Schilling have spearheaded some of the opposition to NEXT Renewable Fuels. They set up a Save Port Westward Facebook page and a website, and they have a mailing list to update like-minded people in their community. They have shown up to public meetings and often outnumber project proponents.

“There’s a lot of cart before the horse in these permit approvals,” Schilling says. “Putting all of our eggs in one company’s basket, for a very risky project, is really a reflection of our local leadership’s preference toward making big bucks over a quality of life for our people.”

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