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Proponents of economic development in rural Oregon have long suspected—half in jest—that there is a conspiracy to stop job creation outside of Portlandia and the Willamette Valley. Far more roadblocks are placed in the way of rural projects than are placed in the way of urban projects like the Port of Portland’s current propane project.
Where is the explosion from fear-mongers over that one?
The anti-jobs lobby, led by Columbia River keepers, has specifically targeted the Port of St. Helens-owned Port Westward industrial park near Clatskanie, the largest and best industrial site left on the Lower Columbia River.
Port Westward, the former Beaver Army ammunition shipment point, has been zoned for industry since being acquired by the Port of St. Helens in the mid-1960s. Portland General Electric built its Beaver plant there 40 years ago, and added Port Westward Unit 1 in 2007. PGE’s Unit 2, a natural gas-fired plant designed to back-up the vagaries of wind power, is now nearing completion.
Port Westward is at the junction of major natural gas lines with plentiful, cheap electricity, rail and road access, and a natural, self-scouring, deep-draft port. The 1,200 foot-long wharf, built by the Army in 1942, has handled a variety of cargo over the past 72 years, and is now in need of improvements to serve the modern maritime industry.
Consequently, the Port of St. Helens applied for two ConnectOregon V grants. Two existing industrial tenants (PGE and Global Partners’ Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery), two projects in the permitting process (Ambre Energy’s Morrow Pacific and Global Partners’ proposed expansion), and the proposed Northwest Innovation Works’ methanol plant would benefit from the dock improvements. But it was the Port that applied for the grants because the improvements are designed to handle various commodities, create jobs and tax valuation for the next half century.
ConnectOregon applications go through an extensive review process before they receive final approval by the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC), comprised of five members, appointed by the governor.
Catherine Mater, a principal of Mater Engineering in Corvallis, was appointed by Gov. Kitzhaber in June and is serving as chair of the five-member OTC. Among her other involvements, Mater is a member of the Oregon Global Warming Commission and a “senior fellow” of the Pinchot Institute of Conservation. The Columbia Riverkeeper organization lists Pinchot as one of its “partners.”
An unbiased evaluation by a statewide committee of experts ranked the two Port Westward dock projects as the top marine projects in the state. ODOT’s “final review committee” ranked Port Westward’s Berth 1 and Berth 2 upgrades seventh and eighth overall among 104 transportation projects statewide.
The rail improvement for downtown Rainier, which is related to Port Westward development, was ranked 23rd out of the 37 projects recommended for funding. The three Port Westward-related projects also received high ranking by the ODOT Freight Committee, the Northwest Area Commission on Transportation (NWACT), and the “Super Region” ACT.
Historically, because of the earlier extensive vetting, there are few, if any, public comments on the recommended projects before the OTC. However, Columbia River keepers and their anti-jobs-at-Port-Westward allies stacked Mater’s first meeting in June. She extended the public comments period to allow for all of them. By the July meeting, job supporters also appeared to testify.
Both sides were again at the Aug. 22 meeting where the board approved—in 3-2 split decisions—the grants for the Rainier improvements and the Berth 1 project at Port Westward to extend the upstream end of the dock (needed for Global Partners to expand its oil shipments, invest over $50 million and add 30 permanent jobs).
In a 2-3 vote, the OTC turned down the Berth 2 grant because it was associated with Ambre’s coal transloading operation, which is facing probably insurmountable permitting problems. Never mind that the Berth 2 modernization is also necessary for future non-coal jobs at Port Westward.
All of the 34 other ConnectOregon V projects recommended for funding were unanimously approved, virtually without discussion. Only the Port Westward projects were singled out.
Those conspiracy theories no longer seem so funny.
Shirley Kalkoven, mayor of the City of Nehalem, chair of the NWACT, a member of the ODOT Freight Advisory Committee, the ODOT STIP Stakeholder Committee, and a veteran of the ConnectOregon process, expressed her “dismay, discouragement and embarrassment” over Mater’s conduct.
“By her demeanor in this meeting, her disdain for staff work and her attempts to manipulate the process, Commissioner Mater has clearly demonstrated she cannot be a successful Transportation Commission chair,” Kalkoven wrote in a letter to Kitzhaber calling for Mater’s resignation.
Has Kitzhaber reacted to Kalkoven’s letter? We don’t know. But, if he doesn’t, it will give more credence to the anti-rural conspiracy theory.
An earlier version of this story was originally published in the U-Choose Education Bulletin.
Featured image of Highway 207 barn in Wheeler County by Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives via Wikimedia Commons
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