Meeting in Clatskanie Could Remove Legal Hurdle to the Largest Renewable Diesel Refinery in the Nation

Local farmers say they should be allowed to vote and not just leave it to their leaders.

The board of the Beaver Drainage Improvement Company will meet in Clatskanie on Friday afternoon to vote whether to drop their opposition to Next Renewable Fuels, which is trying to build the largest renewable diesel refinery in the country on diked land near the Columbia River.

Previous BDIC meetings have been rancorous, with landowners in the drainage district speaking out against Next, saying that the $2.5 billion plant will foul the air, pave over valuable farmland, and create an earthquake hazard on silty land that sits below river level, behind aging levees. The Columbia Riverkeeper and 1000 Friends of Oregon also oppose the plant.

So far, the three-member BDIC board has resisted pressure from Next to drop an appeal it made to the Oregon Department of State Lands, which approved the Next plant in March. The DSL permit is one of several that Next needs to move forward.

Like biodiesel, renewable diesel can be made from nonpetroleum sources like used cooking oil. Next has said that it plans to use waste from fish-processing plants. Renewable diesel releases far fewer greenhouse gases than petroleum when it’s burned, though it does require the addition of hydrogen, which, in Next’s case, will come from natural gas.

Earlier this year, Next presented the BDIC with a settlement agreement that promised to pay $3.5 million over 10 years to help the BDIC care for the aging levees and to cap spots in the some parts of the drainage if water seeps in as a result of Next’s activities.

According to a state formula, Next must restore almost 4 acres to wetlands for every 1 acre it covers. The company plans to do that by stripping the top 6 inches of soil off 483 acres in the Beaver Drainage to keep native plants wet year round, and dig ponds and channels up to 6 feet deep. Farmers say the excavation likely will reveal artisan springs and “sand boils” that will flood their land.

The BDIC is a quasi-governmental organization set up decades ago to manage the dikes that keep the Columbia River from flooding the rich farmland. It represents landowners in the Beaver Drainage, who have one vote on company matters for each acre they own. The BDIC has three board members, all of them farmers with land in the district, who handle day-to-day issues that need not go to landowners.

There will be only two members voting tomorrow because one of them, mint farmer Warren Seely, has recused himself for a conflict of interest, said Angela Velke, bookkeeper for the BDIC. The other two, Truett Stolzenburg and Tim Keranen, are eligible to vote.

Neither Stolzenburg nor Keranan returned an email seeking comment.

Next’s opponents say that the settlement agreement must go to a landowner vote because it alters the operation of the drainage district and changes the BDIC’s ability to care for the levees and the land.

“The settlement dictates what the board is able to do,” said Jasmine Lillich, a farmer from Clatskanie who owns land near the drainage district. “It seems like they should take the more conservative approach and move this to a landowners’ vote.”

Wendy Schmidt, a landowner in the drainage district, agrees.

“According to your bylaws,” she wrote to the BDIC board recently, “voting on this settlement would need a two-thirds acreage vote to ratify since this settlement adds new rules and regulations to the BDIC and would restrict the BDIC from performing maintenance.”

The two-thirds requirement means that a vote on the settlement agreement would likely fail, Lillich said. Earlier this month, Next’s opponents circulated a petition against the settlement agreement and won signatures from people who own more than 2,000 of the 5,717 acres in the drainage, or about 35%. If that level of opposition held in a vote, the agreement would fail.

“If it were put to the community, the Next deal would be voted down,” Lillich said. “It’s that simple. Next does not have the support of the community. We hope the board respects the will of the people. They should scrap the deal altogether.”

Michael Hinrichs, Next’s director of communications, said the settlement agreement is favorable to the farmers and to Next. “I’m just waiting to see what their decision is,” he said. “I’m hoping for a positive outcome.”

In addition to dropping their opposition, the settlement agreement requires the BDIC to “make a public statement, developed in consultation with Next, that confirms it has reached an agreement with Next resolving BDIC’s concerns with the project.”

Nor would BDIC be allowed to support any organization or person opposing the refinery. To the contrary, the BDIC would be required to help Next get the regulatory approvals it needs to build the plant, according to the agreement.

The BDIC meeting will begin at 3 pm Friday, Oct. 21, at the Quincy Grange, 78134 Rutters Road, Clatskanie.