Port of Columbia County commissioners on Nov. 28 sat for lengthy testimony and discussion regarding a lease amendment for Global Partners, owner of the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery at Port Westward. There was standing room only at the packed meeting, with some attendees left out of the room for lack of space.
The commissioners heard comments in favor and against a lease amendment that would permit Global to handle a wider range of products by rail and ship. Fuels and oils are classified by their American Petroleum Institute (API) gravity. Global wants to eliminate its API limit, allowing it to ship heavier-rated types of crude oil in its lease amendment request. Commissioners took no action on the lease amendment at the heavily attended meeting.
The public testimony opened with Scappoose Mayor Scott Burge and St. Helens Mayor Rick Scholl appearing together with a shared message that delivered a message far from the “jobs vs. the environment” comments that would fill the next two hours. Their concerns addressed expanding the length of the trains by 50 percent, from a mile to 1.5 miles, and the impact of that potential on public safety.
“In Scappoose, we have 3,500 citizens who live east of the railroad tracks and 3,500 who live west of the tracks,” Burge said. “We have a police station on one side of the tracks and the fire station on the other. We have schools on either side. A train stopped and blocking an intersection is a serious issue.”
Scholl echoed Burge and pointed out that St. Helens has few, if any, workarounds at this time in the event of such an emergency occurring. St. Helens, like Scappoose, is bisected by the train tracks with citizens and services located on either side of the rail line.
Both mayors urged the Port to hold off on any action until a meeting with city officials along the rail line in Columbia County to discuss possible options, something that would weigh heavily in the minds of commission members when they deliberated on possible action later in the meeting.
Global said the lease amendment represents a potential $75 million investment and an increase to 40 on-site jobs at the Port Westward location. There are presently 24 employees on staff. In January of 2016, Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery laid off 28 employees, citing “severe headwinds affecting the crude oil market and the corresponding decrease in crude oil trans-loading activities at the facility.”
Representatives from a number of area labor organizations as well as a handful of employees of Global urged the omission to consider the potential increase in jobs if the changes sought by Global to its lease agreement were adopted.
Roger Garcia of the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters told the commission “while many in this room are retired, there are a lot of working men and women with families who could not be here and they deserve to have suitable employment opportunities in their community.”
Environmental activist group Columbia Riverkeeper issued a statement immediately after the meeting. In the statement, Riverkeeper said oil spills pose unacceptable risks to clean water, salmon, and human health. Riverkeeper has previously challenged industrial expansions at Port Westward and has repeatedly warned public officials of what it sees as the dangers of shipping crude oil and ethanol. A number of groups and local agriculture operations have also protested what they see as industry encroaching on them.
“Global Partners wants Northwest communities to accept expanded oil operations, including oil trains and tankers. The Port should learn from the Mosier, Oregon, oil derailment and Washington state’s decision to reject the nation’s largest oil-by-rail terminal, Tesoro,” said Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, senior organizer, Columbia Riverkeeper. “Communities along the Columbia stand together to protect clean water from risky oil-by-rail—including Global Partners’ latest proposal.”
In an interview after the meeting, Zimmer-Stucky said there was a lot of discussion around the meaning of API and how it translates to safety and cleanup. There appeared to be some consensus on not lowering the API below a rating of 10, where heavier crude oils are categorized, though nothing was made official. Heavy crude oil can sink below the surface, making cleanup even more difficult.
“Any ‘yes’ vote to an amendment from Global is going to mean more opportunities to bring in oil trains through communities and oil tankers on the Columbia River.
Zimmer-Stucky said even with the Port commission placing a modest limit on the API or oil types that can be transported, Port Westward is on track to expand the kinds of oil that could be shipped from the terminal. She added that during the meeting, the mayors of St. Helens and Scappoose expressed “significant concerns” about the lease amendment. Both asked for more consideration of the community impacts from oil trains.
Zimmer-Stucky also questioned the timing and pace of the lease amendment proposal, which was presented to Port of Columbia County commissioners on Nov. 14, as well as the apparent about-face from the company’s previous statements that it had no interest in resuming oil operations. She said that change of tone was a testament to the lack of trust residents should place in Global Partners.
“That is a clear indication of how Global Partners does business in Columbia County,” she said. “They wanted this amendment done essentially in the dark, and given their track record of violating DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) permits, I think the community should give great pause to this request.”
“They have violated permits, they’ve stated that they wouldn’t resume oil shipments, and they have tried to sneak through this massive change in their lease for their operations at Port Westward,” she said. “All of their behavior in the community should signal that this is not a company to be trusted with such a dangerous commodity coming through communities next to schools and homes.”
Global Partners spokesperson Catie Kerns said the company inherited an API gravity limit of 30-44 within its lease. In that lease were provisions that the company could request API changes based on safety performance and operation records. Kerns said Global was not interested in handling products with API gravity heavier than a 10 rating.
Addressing concerns that trains could grow in frequency and length, affecting traffic throughout the county, Kerns said there are specific limitations on transports. The Port of Columbia County restricted the company to 24 trains per month or 32,000 rail cars per year. She said Global was not asking for any changes to the rail car restriction.
Kerns also spoke on the move this past year by Global to acquire storage tanks from nearby Portland General Electric’s (PGE) site, thereby expanding the facility’s capacity. Oregon's Public Utility Commission voted to allow the sale of nine fuel storage tanks at Port Westward. Global could have constructed new tanks, but took advantage of infrastructure already in place, in following through with its expansion plans approved and permitted by DEQ in 2014.
Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery was initially built for ethanol, garnering $36 million in green energy loans and tax incentives from the state. It went belly-up in 2009 and then-owner JH Kelly, who was contracted to build the plant, sold it to Global Partners. Oil shipping began from the site in 2012.
Longview’s Daily News reported in 2016 that Global Partners had been fined $102,000 for exceeding the 50-million gallon limit for the site that was authorized by the state. It was reported that Global had shipped 300-million gallons during 2013 in drawing the fine.
Kerns said Global appreciated the Port commission’s careful consideration of the amendment, and that the company supports taking some additional time to evaluate and seek input from Columbia County communities.
“To be clear, this amendment will not increase the existing rail traffic limit. It will not change the type of commodities Global is already permitted and approved to move. The amendment simply provides flexibility as our marketplaces change,” Kerns said. “That flexibility has the potential to significantly increase investment at the Port and generate jobs. As stated in the initial lease, the restriction would be modified based on our performance and record, which is exemplary.”
Kerns called attention to the past five years and what she called an impeccable safety record. She said the company’s employees live in the community and care about protecting the river and land.
“We work closely with our partners in rail, marine shipping, emergency services, to ensure a safe and environmentally sound operation,” she said. “Public processes regarding rail, commodities, and emissions have occurred countless times in the past and are not associated with this requested lease amendment.”
“Global supports the public process at the Port,” Kerns said. “We are proud of our safety at the terminal and of our leadership role as a good neighbor and a responsible member of the community. As a result, we have earned the trust of numerous community members and organizations.”
Morris L. Malakoff contributed to this article