CLATSKANIE — A Clatskanie-area ethanol plant’s proposal to renew its air quality permit has several Columbia County residents worried the refinery is claiming it wants to restart ethanol production as a cover for storing and shipping crude oil.
But other community members say they trust that Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery really does plan to restart ethanol production, which would boost the local economy.
The two sides voiced their viewpoints Wednesday night at a public hearing in the Clatskanie Cultural Center, where the auditorium was packed with more than 100 people.
Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery, which began as an ethanol production plant at Port Westward and is owned by Global Partners, is asking the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to renew the air quality permit.
The plant is currently permitted to produce ethanol from corn, though it hasn’t operated in this capacity since 2009, according to DEQ. Columbia Pacific wants to renew its permit so it can build the equipment to produce ethanol from wheat, store that product and recover the wheat co-products left over after fermentation.
Some of that same equipment can be used to store and ship crude oil, and Global Partners used the plant to ship large volumes of crude oil early this decade. Reportedly, Global Partners hasn’t shipped crude oil through the plant since late 2015, when oil prices plummeted. At the time, Global announced it would start shipping ethanol.
This June, Global also submitted an application to renew its air quality permit for crude oil operations. That application has not yet been assigned to a DEQ employee, said David Graiver, air quality permit writer and inspector.
Though the two permits overlap in some areas, they must be filed separately because they legally are classified as two separate industrial facilities, Graiver said. The permit for the ethanol operation has a clause prohibiting crude oil shipping under the ethanol permit.
Almost 75% of the nearly 40 commenters opposed renewing the permit. Many of those opposed cited concerns that the company was preparing the ethanol facility to be used as a crude oil transport plant.
A Warren, Ore., man said he opposed the permit “because of the history of this facility for getting a permit for one thing, then manipulating the State of Oregon” to change that permit.
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Global Partners bought the Clatskanie ethanol plant in 2012 but never restarted ethanol production. Instead, the company used the plant to ship crude oil by rail. DEQ had quietly approved a permit to Global in 2012 allowing the company to transport 50 million gallons of crude oil annually.
DEQ later fined Global for shipping nearly six times more oil than its permit allowed.
“Here’s the bottom line: DEQ should not allow global to establish a crude oil terminal under the guise of ethanol,” Kate Murphy, community organizer for the Columbia Riverkeeper environmental advocacy group said during the public hearing.
Dan Luckett, general manager for the plant, assured the crowd that “the sole purpose of this permit is ethanol production.”
“I relocated my family here from Iowa specifically for the purpose of restarting ethanol production at this refinery,” Luckett said during his two-minute comment. “The modifications we have requested to the facility are necessary to make the facility economically viable.”
Luckett was joined by six other commenters in his support of the renewal, including Clatskanie City Manager Greg Hinkelman.
“The City of Clatskanie strongly supports the renewal of this permit” because it will continue to provide necessary jobs to the community, he said during the hearing.
Another couple dozen people showed their support quietly from the back two rows of the auditorium, waving small signs with the word “approved” anytime a commenter spoke positively of the permit.
DEQ will continue to accept written comments until 5 p.m. July 31. Comments can be submitted by email to the Northwest Region AQ Permit Coordinator, 700 NE Multnomah St. Ste. 600, Portland, OR 97232.
DEQ officials will begin responding to comments in August. The agency will ultimately issue a hearings report, which will determine whether DEQ will issue the permit as-is, issue it with modifications or revise it significantly enough for a second round of public comment.