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Riverkeeper asks for EIS on Columbia City industrial site

Port of St. Helens awaits federal approval to conduct 'feasibility study'

Photo Credit: FILE - The Port of St. Helens office, which is located in the Columbia City Industrial Park. Other tenants of the industrial park include West Oregon Wood Products and the city of Columbia City, which operates a popular dog park on the southern end of the property.A Hood River-based environmentalist group is asking the federal government to commission what promises to be a lengthy study into the environmental impact of potential development at a Port of St. Helens property in Columbia City before awarding a grant to the port.

The port has requested federal funding for a “feasibility study” to determine what can be done with the Columbia City Industrial Park, located in the northern portion of the city. The prospect of development is opposed by Columbia Riverkeeper, which said in a Friday, Oct. 31, letter to the Economic Development Administration that the federal agency should prepare an environmental impact statement, or EIS, before making a decision on whether to grant money for the port’s project.

“As a federal agency with authority over the ‘Columbia City Industrial Park Maritime Feasibility Study,’ EDA has the responsibility to prepare an EIS pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) before deciding whether to fund this project,” the letter from Columbia Riverkeeper attorney Miles Johnson reads in part.

Officially, the feasibility study is meant to determine how the port can best use the 93-acre industrial property, which currently houses the manufacturing business West Oregon Wood Products, as well as the port’s administrative office.

“The idea is to look at our Columbia City Industrial Park property and all of its advantages, all of its challenges,” said Scott Jensen, planning coordinator for the port, on Wednesday.

Jensen added, “There’s no project at this time, and there’s no project waiting in the wings. This is a purely data-driven study. We want to see what makes sense, and then have conversations about what physically makes sense, and then the next [step] would be what makes sense with the community. And that’s all part of the study.”

A March 6 email sent by an EDA official to a Seattle attorney, however, raised questions about whether the port does have other plans in mind.

“My concern is that the Port has plans, that they are not sharing with us, to develop either a methanol plant or coal export terminal at the Columbia City site,” wrote Shannon FitzGerald in the email.

FitzGerald’s email cited unnamed port staff she said indicated the port would relocate its current tenants from the Columbia City Industrial Park if it landed “a contract for a $1 billion project,” which she suggested could be a methanol production facility sponsored by the Chinese government.

Beijing-backed Northwest Innovation Works LLC already has a contract with the port for a $1 billion methanol plant at Port Westward, the large industrial park north of Clatskanie. It is one of several sites in the Pacific Northwest where Chinese-backed developers are looking at building methanol plants.

In its letter to the EDA, Columbia Riverkeeper said the port’s application and the potential to develop more industrial fossil fuel export operations along the Columbia River deserves “the most searching and transparent environmental review possible: an EIS.”

Johnson said Columbia Riverkeeper’s letter was sent in response to a legal notice requesting public comments on the port’s application.

Johnson said the organization wanted to “remind the EDA of the scope of their responsibility to consider the full range of possible impacts.”

While he declined to comment on the email exchange between FitzGerald and the attorney, he said the email highlights many of the same concerns echoed by Columbia Riverkeeper and hundreds of other public comments submitted on the matter. Johnson said his feeling was “this project is going to be eventually much bigger than a feasibility study,” and said the federal environmental review process must be followed.

Jensen said the port is “not entertaining” the idea of a coal facility at the Columbia City Industrial Park.

“It’s not going to be a coal terminal,” said Jensen. “That’s been off the board since day one.”

Jensen also said the industrial park has not been evaluated as a potential methanol facility site, unlike the port property north of Clatskanie.

“I’m sure that they would have considered this one too, if it was suitable,” said Jensen.

Jensen stressed that the port wants to work with Columbia City on the feasibility study.

“We don’t want to propose something or work with ... a potential tenant to find out, ‘Oh, the city doesn’t like that,’” said Jensen. “We want to have the city engaged as early as possible.”

But for now, the study is in limbo. Although the EDA tentatively approved a $75,000 grant for the project last year, it has not been officially awarded; it is unclear whether the EDA can make the grant, which is supposed to go toward “technical assistance,” if the port’s scope of work is broader than that.

The federal agency is working through the NEPA process. Currently, it is soliciting public comments on potential environmental and cultural impacts that the study might have.

The process of producing an environmental impact statement, which is what Columbia Riverkeeper is arguing the EDA should conduct before awarding money for the port’s study, can take up to several years.

Asked about Columbia Riverkeeper’s argument that an environmental impact statement should be required before the study proceeds, Jensen hesitated for several seconds.

“As a feasibility study, it’s difficult to see how an environmental impact statement is possible,” he said. “It’s meant to measure what can be measured. So [with] a feasibility study, because there’s no development associated with it, it’s difficult to measure anything.”

Columbia Riverkeeper has tangled with the port in the past. Recently, the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals sided with Columbia Riverkeeper in remanding the Columbia County Board of Commissioners’ decision to approve the port’s request to rezone several hundred acres of land adjacent to Port Westward for industrial use.

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