North Portland residents have complained for years about foul odors traced to air emissions of two refineries that recycle used oil.
What they didn't know was that in addition to the stench sporadically discharged into the air, the two North Portland refineries have been storing more than 2 million gallons of PCBs, oil and other hazardous materials in questionable safety conditions.
Newly released public documents requested by the Portland Tribune show that when two city agencies inspected the sites in 2016, they found scores of fire and safety violations, many of which remain unresolved today.
The Portland Fire Marshal's office and the city Bureau of Development Services conducted their investigations after the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began investigating foul odors and hazardous air pollution at the plants.
The documents show the fire marshal and the BDS found a combined 128 fire and safety violations at the two plants, which are located about a mile apart, near the Portland Expo Center. Most of the violations involved 114 above-ground storage tanks and silos located at the two refineries. The storage tanks vary in capacity, from 100 gallons up to 200,000 gallons.
One of the plants, owned by EcoLube Recovery of Bellevue, Wash., is located on North Force Avenue, across the street from the Expo Center. The other plant, owned by Oil Re-Refining Co. (ORRCO), is located on North Suttle Road. Up until a few years ago, they were both owned by ORRCO.
Each plant employs fewer than 50 people.
PCB storage violations
The two companies have been storing hazardous waste, fuel, oils, antifreeze and oils contaminated with PCBs in the tanks, according to DEQ records. Regulators found their storage of PCBs, a highly toxic compound also known as polychlorinated biphenyls, was problematic at both refineries.
EcoLube Recovery, which maintains 51 storage tanks at its site, was cited in December 2017 by the DEQ for unlawfully storing PCBs in two storage tanks and one truck, which it deemed to be violations of state law. The company says it is now in the process of destroying the chemicals.
ORRCO, which has 63 storage tanks, was cited in 2013 by the EPA, also for unlawfully storing PCBs, among other things, which it said violated federal law. The company says it disposed of its PCBs a year ago under EPA orders.
Safety has been an even bigger concern at the refineries, especially at the EcoLube plant, where four storage tanks were damaged in a 2009 explosion and fire. The fire marshal found 30 violations of the city fire code at that plant in 2016, issuing $2,565 in fines.
Joe Stanaway, a spokesman for EcoLube Recovery, said the violations were found when the plant was under the control of its previous owner, American Petroleum Environmental Services, known as APES. EcoLube purchased the plant about a year ago.
"APES had abated most of the infractions prior to selling its assets to ELR," Stanaway said. "ELR is in active dialogue with the Fire Code Enforcement and Permit Office, and is committed to resolving all remaining code violations in a timely manner."
Paul Jennings, a fire marshal inspector, said EcoLube's fines initially were much smaller but grew each time inspectors returned later in 2016 to conduct reinspections. During the reinspections, they found that many of the violations still "were not resolved," he said in late December.
Invoices obtained by the Tribune through a public records request show that EcoLube's fines included $565 from the first inspection and $150 from each of six reinspections, plus another $1,100 for 11 unresolved violations that were detected during the reinspections.
The Bureau of Development Services also found six violations of the city building code at EcoLube, but issued no fines.
ORRCO still noncompliant
The BDS found 47 violations at the ORRCO site. It said many storage tanks at ORRCO "have been constructed/installed or moved without the required permits, inspections and approvals. There are currently 47 tanks that were not on any site plans found in a review of the site's permit history."
BDS spokesman David
Austin said the agency fined ORRCO in 2016 a total of $13,600 for the 47 violations.
Today, nearly two years after the company was cited, the fines have not yet been paid, and the violations have yet to be corrected, Austin said. The city is tacking on a 1 percent late fee each month.
The fire marshal found an additional 45 violations during its inspections at the ORRCO refinery, and assessed $486 in fines.
Inspectors with the fire marshal's office reported that the plant had been creating a fire hazard by misusing extension cords and multiplug adapters, and had deployed substandard fire extinguishers. In addition, the inspection found "numerous leaks in valves, piping and hoses," Jennings said.
The fire marshal ordered the ORRCO plant to take several corrective actions, such as "discontinue running extension cords through walls, ceiling, floors, or under doors," and provide "physical protection for power cords running on the floor." It also ordered the plant to "discontinue use of extension cords in lieu of permanent wiring."
Scott Briggs, chief operating officer at ORRCO, said the plant has corrected most of the problems and is working on correcting the rest. Briggs said that in 2017, the fire marshal returned to reinspect ORRCO, and expects it will soon inspect the site again.
"We corrected all the violations except the ones involving the building department," Briggs said in December. "We are working on those with outside engineers and should have them resolved in 2018."
He said the refineries had been inspected in previous years, but never as thoroughly as in 2016. During the latter inspection, he said, "they looked into every closet."
Both refineries have emergency plans for disastrous events, such as the 2009 explosion at the Force Avenue plant. (See sidebar, below)
"Any on-site fire, explosion, spill, or material release that threatens any area beyond the site's property boundary shall be considered cause for evacuation of that area," ORRCO's emergency plan says.
As the Tribune reported in "The Big Stink" investigative report last March, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has received more than 1,000 complaints from neighbors of the plants about foul odors in the past 17 years, including a large number in the past two years.
In 2017, the DEQ finally determined that the two oil refineries were the source of the odors. Last September, when it issued a new air pollution permit to the EcoLube refinery, it required the plant to install new air pollution control equipment, which the state agency now says has been "effective" at reducing pollution.
But whether the equipment has also reduced the odors is still an open question.
In Part 2 of this series on Thursday, we will report how odor complaints against EcoLube Recovery continue, and document EcoLube and ORRCO issues with regulators over PCBs.
Disaster narrowly averted in 2009 explosion, blaze
Shortly after noon on July 24, 2009, two 25,000-gallon tanks and two 4,000-gallon tanks exploded at a refinery that recycles used oil near the Portland Expo Center, on North Force Avenue.
As Portland firefighters raced to the scene, they observed a large smoke plume extending "several hundred feet in the air," according to a Portland Fire & Rescue report obtained through a public records request.
Firefighters extinguished the fire before additional tanks were destroyed, and no one was injured or evacuated.
Damages could have been much worse.
"Several oil-containment silos were threatened, as well as mobile tankers containing unknown product," the fire bureau report concluded.
"Luckily, it was confined to a preheat furnace and was extinguished before any stored liquids were ignited," says Tom Test, who works at the Expo Center and is a union steward with AFSCME Local 3580. He was standing about 150 yards from the fire and remembers it vividly.
"I stood in our back parking lot and watched the flames and big cloud of black smoke," Test recalls, "as the fire department parked at the end of the street and stood by until they figured out what was burning and what kind of risk to expect."
The fire started when an employee was filling a transformer oil tank, releasing fumes that "drifted to a nearby high-output furnace attached to a separate tank," the fire bureau report concluded.
"Once the fumes reached the furnace, which was identified as the ignition area, the fire began free-burning fuel spilled in the process," the report said. "This led to a small fuel vapor explosion, damaging the burner and releasing additional fuel in the area of the fire."
Scott Briggs, chief operating officer of Oil Re-Refining Co. or ORRCO, the owner of the plant at the time, attributed the incident to "operator error."
After the fire, the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division investigated and found 13 "serious" safety violations, records show, including eight that it said could have led to "death due to explosion." The agency issued fines totaling $4,755.
The plant is now owned by EcoLube Recovery.