CLATSKANIE — Students dig fresh soil Tuesday morning as they plant lettuce, carrots, strawberries, flowers, and other plants in the garden of Clatskanie Elementary School.
“It’s really about getting the kids on the ground,” said Natasha Parvey-Leskowich, community coordinator for NEXT Renewable Fuels Oregon, which organizes community learning events where they hope to one day build a renewable diesel plant.
NEXT is planning a two-day outreach effort for elementary school students and six to learn about surrounding wetlands and native plants, as well as transforming the school grounds garden, said Krystal Irby, a former science teacher and environmental consultant with Stewardship Solutions on behalf of NEXT.
Clatskanie Building Supply donated farm and livestock equipment, with NEXT supplying the crops and soil, said NEXT spokesman Michael Hinrichs.
“This is the start of a longer partnership,” Hinrichs said.
During the pandemic, school gardens have been largely neglected, Irby said.
“This idea came from Earth Day, so we reached out to schools and basically said, ‘You don’t have to prepare anything, and we can come teach them about science,’” Irby said.
Irby leads children through wetland education, teaching them about how important ecological features are to plants and water treatment.
“Wetlands act as filters for our water,” Irby told a group of students as they used a small wetland model to show how water flows.
Hands-on demonstrations like these help children understand agriculture and plant health, says Parvey-Leskowich.
“It connects kids with where their food comes from,” he said.
Hinrichs said the event was part of an outreach effort to schools, and they had future plans to host similar events at schools in Rainier.
The company’s proposed renewable fuel facility recently received multiple permit approvals from county and state departments to eventually be built at Port Westward Industrial Park.
Parvey-Leskowich said he lived in Columbia County for several years and wanted to see clean energy generation bring economic progress to Clatskanie.
“It’s a green job,” he said.
Those who oppose the facility say renewable diesel power plants will actually disrupt agricultural land and emit more greenhouse gases. At the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality public hearing for the NEXT air quality clearance, resident Stuart Gray said he wanted the department to take a deeper look into the combined effects of the facility’s total emissions before making a decision.
“Once this plant is operational, it will be on our sensitive soil and polluting our air for decades,” Gray told the department on April 28.
Public comments on the air quality clearance will remain open until 5 p.m. May 26. Information on how to submit comments can be found on the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Project website.