Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify the permit history of the ethanol plant.
Regional environmentalists are criticizing the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s recent decision to renew air quality permits for a Clatskanie-area ethanol plant, calling the approval a “half-step” toward allowing the company to restart its controversial crude oil export operations.
But Global Partners, the company that owns the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery, says it has no plans to restart crude oil shipping at the terminal. And DEQ expressly prohibited using the ethanol permit to store or ship crude oil.
“If we were to restart those (crude oil) operations, we would communicate with the community in advance,” Global Partners spokeswoman Catie Kerns said in a Thursday email to The Daily News.
Global Partners bought the plant in 2012, about three years after the bio-refinery stopped producing ethanol. Shortly before the company bought the plant, its previous owners asked DEQ to modify its ethanol production permit to allow shipments of "incidental amounts" of crude oil.
"Based on the information in the (modification) application, which identified limited amounts of transloading and incidental air emissions, a public process was not required by DEQ's rules," officials said in a question and answers document. DEQ approved the modification, and the plant started shipping crude oil.
That meant the switch to crude oil shipments happened quietly and quickly, without a chance for public comment, said Dan Serres, conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper, a Hood River, Ore., environmental organization.
“People in Columbia County never thought they would have oil trains. They thought they would have corn trains,” Serres said. “All of the sudden they had these big, mile-long trains carrying crude oil.”
Those trains are very dangerous, especially if they derail and spill oil into waterways, Serres said. He pointed to a 2016 derailment in Mosier, Ore.
“If you had an oil train derail and spill into the Columbia River, you could affect river commerce and fishing. It would cause hundreds of millions of dollars to damage in habitat,” Serres said. “And that’s setting aside the health and public safety of people.”
Global Partners inherited the modified permit when it bought the plant and continued shipping oil. Global never restarted ethanol production.
The company in early 2013 began shipping crude oil at higher rates than the "incidental amount" allowed under the ethanol production permit. DEQ required Global Partners to apply for a second permit specific to crude oil and ethanol shipments, because those operations produced enough emissions to qualify as a "new air contaminant source" unique from ethanol production, according to DEQ documents.
The state agency also fined the company for shipping nearly six times more crude oil than it was allowed under its modified ethanol production permit.
The permit application for oil and ethanol shipping underwent a public process, unlike the earlier permit modification.
"When DEQ determined that the facility should have two permits, one for manufacturing ethanol and one for transloading crude and ethanol, there were dozens of public meetings and ample opportunity for public comment," Kerns said.
Global received its transloading permit in 2014. However, the plant hasn’t been used to ship crude oil since 2015, Kerns said.
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This summer Global Partners asked DEQ to renew its air quality permit for its ethanol operations and update that permit to allow the production of ethanol from wheat.
Global Partners is adding wheat ethanol production to the permit to “maintain the preparedness of the plant to produce renewable fuel and help meet the region’s clean energy requirements,” Kerns said.
“We need this type of manufacturing in this state and in our community, and we are pleased DEQ issued this permit on its merits,” she added.
However, the company does not have immediate plans to restart ethanol production of any kind, Kerns said.
Serres, the Riverkeeper environmentalist, said the request was “strange to us” because the plant hasn’t produced ethanol for a decade — and doesn’t intend to restart operations.
“We started asking questions, and what we found was that while they were asking DEQ to permit ethanol production, they were also asking DEQ to permit equipment to handle crude oil,” Serres said. (Kerns said the company is not asking for a new permit to handle crude oil, but rather it is renewing its existing shipping permit.)
Global uses some of the same equipment to store and ship ethanol as it does to store and ship crude oil, Serres said, and many of the storage tanks are covered in both permits.
“In our view, they asked for these permits because they ultimately intend to use the same equipment later (for crude oil). That’s where the pieces of the puzzle fit together,” he said.
Serres also noted that Global Partners has a history of abusing its permits.
“DEQ knows the company is asking for permission to use those same tanks for oil. It’s kind of like these two things are on a collision course here,” he said.
Hundreds of commenters raised that concern during a public comment period for the ethanol permit.
But the company contends that it is renewing its permits as part of a regular, five-year renewal cycle. Kerns added that the company is renewing its crude oil-related permit so it can “maintain operational flexibility.”
“The renewal application has no proposed changes and does not increase the amount of pollution the facility is allowed to emit. Since 2015 the facility has only transloaded ethanol,” Kerns said.
DEQ has not yet posted information about the public hearing for the crude oil permits. Serres said his group will likely oppose that permit, too.
“We were pretty blunt with DEQ that we thought it was a mistake to issue a permit for ethanol, knowing that the crude oil also lined up that seems to supercede it,” Serres said. “The fix here is pretty obvious: DEQ should not issue a permit to allow them to transload oil.”