SOURCE: Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB)

DATE: December 11, 2019

SNIP: The Zenith Energy oil terminal and the Columbia Pacific Biorefinery took over existing industrial facilities and didn’t need many permits to start transporting fuel. The companies running these projects don’t need to provide much information to the public about what kind of fuel they’re handling and where it’s going.

Plans for a facility upgrade filed with the City of Portland in 2014 suggest the additional racks under construction will allow the company to unload up to 44 oil train cars simultaneously. The added capacity could more than double the number of oil trains running along the Columbia and Willamette rivers. But the company got the city approval it needed two years before city leaders passed an ordinance restricting the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.

“They found a loophole,” climate activist Melanie Plaut said. “This company was able to sneak through, and we suspect this is likely how these things are going to go in the future because the companies know if they go for it straight up, they’re going to lose because of public opinion.”

The project is frustrating to opponents like Plaut who want to reduce the burning of fossil fuel that’s warming up the planet. After a train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire in the Columbia River Gorge in 2016, more and more people share Plaut’s concerns about the risks of shipping oil by rail.

There seem to be a lot of unknowns when it comes to the Zenith terminal. The company took over an old asphalt facility that already had the key environmental permits the company needs to receive crude oil from trains and ship it down the Willamette River.

But without government approvals to challenge, it’s harder to stop this project like they have so many others.

State regulators have been caught off-guard by Zenith’s approach, too.

Scott Smith, an emergency response planner for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality who works on oil spill cleanup plans, said he had to adapt those plans when Zenith changed the type of oil it was shipping.

In 2017, the company started shipping bitumen, a type of petroleum from Canada’s tar sands that’s thick like peanut butter. But sometime after that, it switched to shipping diluted bitumen, which is mixed with liquids. Smith said the different types of oil behave differently when they’re spilled in water and require different oil spill response plans.

“We’ve had to look at their safety data sheet and change it several times based on the new products that they’re transferring,” Smith said.

Smith said the oil Zenith is handling now has heavy components that would sink in a spill. The oil also emits hazardous vapors that would pose an inhalation risk to oil spill cleanup workers.

“And that is kind of new for our region,” he said. “We haven’t previously prepared for that and that’s part of the reason that we’ve had to take a very close look at them over the past year or two.”

Oregon DEQ will soon be considering new air pollution permits for both the Zenith Energy terminal and the Columbia Pacific Biorefinery, but Serres said those reviews don’t consider many of the safety and environmental issues involved in shipping oil by rail.

“This sort of haphazard process has really led to alarm in the community because what we see is oil trains rolling through Portland and potentially more of them coming,” Dan Serres with the environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper said. “We should have a public process and public hearings and look at all the risks, not just these relatively narrow issues that are associated with an air pollution permit.”