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Regional Interests

Columbia County’s plan to transform 800 acres of farmland draws environmental concerns

The site at the Port of Kalama where NW Innovation Works had proposed a 90-acre methanol plant.
The site at the Port of Kalama where NW Innovation Works had proposed a 90-acre methanol plant.

An Oregon county’s plan to transform hundreds of acres of farmland into the future site for heavy industry is facing criticism, and potential legal challenges, over concerns it would contaminate the air and water.

Columbia County on Wednesday agreed to rezone 837 acres of farmland along the Columbia River, just outside of Clatskanie. The decision clears the way, potentially, for industrial users to build facilities at the county’s northern tip.

County commissioners voted 3-0 in favor of the zoning change. Commissioners will vote a second time, as required by law, at their next meeting.

Recasting the land, commissioners said, opens new possibilities for the county. Potential tenants could hail from sectors like wood products, bulk commodities and natural gas.

The Port of Columbia County has owned the property since 2010, and it’s unclear if any companies have already approached the port with a proposal.

Large companies could be lured by the land’s nearby deep water port, capable of handling vast cargo ships. County chair Margaret Magruder said the deep water port is the last one unused on the Columbia River, making it a prized asset.

“It’s a treasure. If you have the Eiffel Tower, you build tourism,” Magruder said. “So we need to build industry and have the ability to utilize that deep water port.”

Opponents, however, lambasted the decision almost immediately. Environmental watchdog Columbia Riverkeeper described it as surrendering the state’s natural resources.

“It’s significant impacts. We’re talking, in this case, establishing the kind acreage of industrial development on par with the Port of Vancouver (Washington),” said Dan Serres, a conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper. “We think it runs afoul of Oregon land use law.”

Serres said he also worries the land could be a new focus for a recently axed proposal to build a $2 billion methanol plant in Kalama, Washington, less than 30 miles away.

The developer, NW Innovation Works, called off the project in June. The Washington Department of Ecology denied a key permit for the project.

Northwest Innovation Works had signed a lease agreement with the Port of Columbia County in 2014, records show. And, in 2019, the port signed a resolution allowing the company to relocate its Columbia County property in case the 837-acre swath is rezoned.

Port officials did not respond to questions by press time. Serres called the rezone “putting the cart before the horse.”

Properties near the swath of land include crop farmers like Jim Hoffman, who owns a blueberry farm about 2 miles away. Hoffman told OPB he worries airborne emissions, chemical spills and runoff will tarnish his and other neighbors’ crops.

“Blueberries go from our field to your table. You don’t want anything on them. And we don’t either,” Hoffman said. “Without knowing who the tenants are, there’s a lot of industrial users that spew a lot of junk in the air that we don’t want on our crops.”

In justifying their decision, commissioners said any future owners or tenants will still have to clear regulatory hurdles. They also said the land could still theoretically be used as farmland.

“There are a myriad of regulations that help us to protect one another, and our neighbors, yet still provide some economic input so that we can all enjoy a reasonable life here in Columbia County,” Magruder said.

This is the third try to flip the land for heavy industry uses. As reported by The Capital Press, the port tried to rezone in 2014 and 2017, both of which failed to survive appeals to the state’s land use board.

Industrial land that already exists in the area is home to three gas-fired power plants owned by Portland General Electric, as well as some other industrial users.

In an interview, Serres told OPB that Columbia Riverkeeper intends to appeal if the rezoning moves forward.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting