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Port officials field questions from critics

Mike Avent: 'I know they're frustrated,' but 'good to have dialogue'

by: MARK MILLER - Port of St. Helens Commissioner Mike Avent (far left) gestures as he speaks with a group of concerned citizens at the port office Friday, April 11. Also pictured around the table, from left, are Paulette Lichatowich, Jim Lichatowich, Danner Christensen, Annie Christensen, Brady Preheim and Tammy Maygra.The inaugural edition of “Coffee with a Commissioner,” a Port of St. Helens event offering members of the public a chance to meet with an elected port official, got off to a rocky start.

“This is just a kind of informal thing to get some of your ideas out, some of your concerns,” Port Commissioner Mike Avent said. “There probably won’t be any resolution to those, but it will give you an opportunity to ask some questions. We’ll do our best to answer those for you.”

“I’m really surprised, because I thought this was for you to answer the questions,” said Annie Christensen, a St. Helens resident attending the meeting.

Avent said, “We will do the best we can. Some things are probably confidential. ... I can answer from my specific point, but I can’t give an answer from the port’s perspective.”

Avent, a Rainier resident and businessman, was the only port commissioner to attend the morning meeting with constituents at the port office in Columbia City on Friday, April 11. He and Patrick Trapp, executive director of the port, fielded questions and comments from a group of about a dozen people — most of them critics and skeptics of port activities — on issues ranging from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s claim that the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery on port-owned land near Clatskanie exceeded the terms of a state permit, to how unit trains such as those that carry crude oil through Columbia County are defined and tracked.

At several points in the meeting, Avent told attendees that he appreciated hearing from them.

“We all have our own opinions, and I appreciate that you’re passionate about that, the same way the other side gets passionate about their point of view,” Avent said, responding to comments about the length of oil trains. “And what we try to do is try to balance it back, try to get as much information as we can. Even though sometimes it doesn’t look that way, we try to do that behind the scenes. Sometimes we fail.”

Danner Christensen, Annie Christensen’s husband and representative of newly formed environmentalist group Envision Columbia County, indicated he does not think of his disagreements with the port as a personal feud.

“Even though my writings have been critical, I hope you know that I don’t consider you the enemy, and I certainly hope that you don’t see me that way,” said Danner Christensen. He said he hopes port officials “take seriously the folks around the table, and other folks in the community who don’t come here.”

Avent responded, “I wanted to demonstrate to you that we do care about that. That’s why we’re having this meeting.” He said he wanted to provide more time for people who come to speak at Port Commission meetings but don’t have their concerns addressed in the time allotted to speak with port officials.

While many who spoke at the morning meeting referred to the environmental hazard posed by heavy industry, St. Helens resident Bill Allen spoke particularly forcefully on the issue.

“We should be running from coal. We should be running from oil. We should not be facilitating this climate death, you know, this global suicide we’re participating in right now,” Allen argued. “I would take a bet with everybody in this room right now, 100 to one, 10 years from now, we’re going to be talking about ways to shut all of these enterprises down and find alternatives, because of the absolute death and destruction of our climate.”

Avent said he is also concerned about climate change and environmental damage.

“For me, the hardest thing is to take all this information and try to make something that works for everybody,” said Avent. “It tears you apart.”

Several years ago, before transportation of coal and crude oil by train became a hot-button issue in the Pacific Northwest, the Port Commission was criticized for not doing enough to promote economic development, Avent claimed. He said the port is trying to balance environmental concerns with its mandate to bolster the economy within the port district, which runs along the Columbia River from the Clatsop County line west and south to the Multnomah County line.

After the meeting, Avent said he thought it went well.

“I thought it was really good,” Avent said. “These people are passionate about their concerns.”

He added, “I think it’s good to have dialogue. But my skin is fairly thick, too, you know. But I thought the public was extremely gracious to me this morning. And I know they’re frustrated, so they could have got in here and beat me up and said, ‘You worthless whatever,’ because I know they’re frustrated. Their patience is strained. They feel like they’re not being listened to, and I appreciate that. And that’s what this is about.”