U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley holds town hall meeting in Seneca

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PRAIRIE CITY — U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., met with Grant County residents at Seneca School on Friday, May 17, to respond to questions, discuss issues of local concern and share his recent funding accomplishments for the region.

The town hall was held in the school’s gymnasium and comes days after Merkley and U.S. Sen. Wyden, D-Ore., announced an investment by the U.S. Forest Service of $24 million to projects across Oregon to strengthen and defend communities from wildfire threats.

The funding included $982,000 for Grant County-based Iron Triangle, with the money going toward equipment for the company’s post and pole mill in Seneca and a firewood packaging plant in John Day. Company representative Zach Williams said the funds will help add value to biomass, the leftovers from timber harvesting such as tops, limbs and small-diameter trees.

Williams thanked Merkley for his part in the grant disbursement.

“This grant money will continue to help Iron Triangle attempt to add value to biomass material from the national forest that historically has been a negative value to us,” he said. “The ability to remove small-diameter material from the forest is an important piece of forest restoration and reducing the risk of wildfire.”

Some of the money, Williams said, will go toward a new firewood packaging machine and a drum saw that will help its John Day plant produce the smaller 3.75 cubic foot bundles that have become more popular with customers in the marketplace.

“You explained that far better than I could, because you’re right at the heart of it, so congratulations and I am happy to help,” Merkley told Williams at the town hall.

Prairie City Recorder Shonalie Oakes thanked Merkley for his help in securing about $600,000 for a project to replace water meters and repair some leaky lines in her town. Oakes said the work is planned to begin this summer.

“We are getting ready to go out for bid for our water meter project for … Prairie City,” she said. “Thank you to you and your team for making that happen for us.”

Merkley said when he was a child he kept hearing the phrase, “Whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting.”

“I never understood that until my first year in the state Legislature,” he said. “I was assigned to the water committee, and every bill was for some water war somewhere in Oregon and the challenges of clean water supply, wastewater treatment, irrigation water for ranching and farming — it’s the lifeblood. … In this case, knowing who’s using what and where makes a big difference in the management of the water, so we’re happy to help.”

Oakes also mentioned a concern about subsidized Canadian wood flooding the American market and salvage logs from last year’s fires coming into play next year. She asked Merkley about the possibility of border tariffs to help domestic mills stay open.

“You’re absolutely right that we have had an ongoing challenge with how Canada supports their timber that creates an unfair and uncompetitive relationship,” Merkley said. “I have not heard recently whether we were facing another trade case, so I will have to look into where that stands. … I will get the information and find out if there’s a case that’s being adjudicated right now.”

Didgette McCracken, who received an American flag flown at the U.S. Capitol from Merkley for her team’s efforts with opening CyberMills in Grant County, inquired about difficulties that high school seniors are having with new college financial aid procedures involving the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. McCracken said people are behind by four months and the uncertainty over aid applications is causing a problem.

“I work with students across the county … and it’s been very difficult,” she said. “We looked at the percentages for completed FAFSA forms and it was 29%, which is well below half of what it normally is this time of year in Oregon, and we advise them as best as we can, but we have students unable to see their results because they haven’t been processed.”

Merkley called it “a complete mess-up.”

“It’s a five-alarm fire with the Department of Education, so they are working night and day trying to remedy it,” he said. “This was a case where they were supposed to design a simpler system and completely messed it up. … It’s really messed up a lot of lives.”

Merkley said he is optimistic the problem will be fixed by next year.

“It has to be fixed, and when I say it’s a five-alarm fire, yes it’s a fire for the students who have been affected, but it’s also that the Department of Education has been treating it like they have to get this solved.”