Port Westward Action Alert

Community Members and Columbia Riverkeeper See Major Flaws in Columbia County Approval of NEXT Rail Yard and Plan to Appeal.

Major Flaws with NEXT Rail Yard

Community members and Columbia Riverkeeper see major flaws in Columbia County approval of NEXT rail yard and plan to appeal. In the meantime, NEXT isn’t paying its full rent to the public Port of Columbia County!

On Wednesday, March 6, 2024, the Columbia County Board of Commissioners approved two permit applications for a large rail yard associated with a proposal by Houston-based NEXT (formerly NEXT) to site a non-conventional diesel refinery at Port Westward. Columbia Riverkeeper and local community members plan to push back on this flawed decision.

scenic of Port Westward

Port Westward is home to mint farms, blueberry crops, and other agriculture because of its rich soil, good irrigation and drainage systems maintained by local community members. The area has deep peat soils which are fertile for crops but highly unstable in seismic events, and area dikes are below standards for protecting the area from a large flood. NEXT proposes to site multiple miles of rail tracks along with a large refinery—including a hydrogen production facility that would make hydrogen from fracked gas—on unstable soil amid farms and wetlands. Additionally, there are homes nearby and a Buddhist monastery across the road.

Despite these conflicts, the County approved two applications that would enable the rail yard and stormwater facilities, including on an area recently farmed by local mint farmer Warren Seely. Seely lost access to productive mint fields as a result of the NEXT proposal. The Beaver Drainage Improvement District, which manages drainage systems in the area, has voiced significant concerns about NEXT’s plans.

The Port Westward community has fiercely opposed the rail yard proposal and refinery. NEXT initially told the community that it would avoid using long trains, limiting rail impacts to a much lower level than what is now proposed. (The rail footprint of the proposal now involves over three miles of track.) Across Columbia County, community members have noted broader problems with NEXT’s rail proposal, including blocked crossings from mile-long trains passing through Columbia County and Port Westward on a nearly daily basis.

drone shot port westward and columbia

News of the County’s approval immediately sparked plans to appeal the decision by community members and Columbia Riverkeeper.  “The issues that have been raised by the community demonstrate that this rail yard (it’s not a branch line) would conflict with the uses of this area and its water resources,” said Dan Serres, Columbia Riverkeeper’s Advocacy Director. “We will appeal this decision. And we call on decision makers to start listening to the people who operate the dikes and drainage systems in the area: Port Westward is not a safe or suitable place for a massive refinery and rail yard.”

In 2022, Columbia Riverkeeper, 1000 Friends of Oregon, and local farmer Mike Seely were represented by Crag Law Center in a Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) case in which LUBA rejected the County’s previous decision to permit the rail yard as a conditional use. LUBA concluded that the portion of the rail yard on agricultural land was not a “branch line.” NEXT has shifted plans, but the same fundamental problem exists. And NEXT’s new plans involve major new features, including hundreds of feet of new unlined ponds amid an area with saturated soils, high groundwater, and sensitive drainage systems. 

Meanwhile at the Port, NEXT has stopped paying its full rent!

Recent events call into question whether NEXT’s project is financially viable. In November, NEXT acknowledged that a proposed merger, which was supposed to generate $176 million, had fallen through.

Port Westward

Also in November, NEXT informed the public Port of Columbia County that it would stop paying full rent, instead asking the Port to defer rent payments until a future date when NEXT decided that the project was viable. According to public records, NEXT did not pay full rent in December or January. Now, the Port is considering retroactively deferring NEXT’s rent and lowering their monthly payment by over $93,000 per month! If NEXT won’t (or can’t) pay its rent, it shouldn’t be building a rail yard and refinery. The Port will consider the rent deferral on March 13, 2024 at its 8:30 AM public meeting.

In public testimony in February, many community members have questioned NEXT’s ability to build their proposal and fulfill permit requirements. They urged the Port to look for an exit strategy from the lease and seek to recoup lost rent. They also urged the Port to seek and share information about NEXT’s financial situation before making a decision. Community members from the Port district argued that it is unreasonable for a public port under financial stress to defer over $1.1 million in rent payments per year without any real assurance that the full amount would be paid.

Stay tuned in coming months when we expect to have additional opportunities to comment on NEXT’s proposed permits to state and federal agencies.

Stop Bait-And-Switch Rail Yard at Port Westward.

Sign our petition calling on the public Port of Columbia County to collect full rent or cancel its lease with NEXT.