Mayor Wheeler, enviros vow to block expanded oil by rail shipments
Environmental groups and Mayor Ted Wheeler are seeking to block the expansion of oil shipments by train at the Zenith Energy terminal in Northwest Portland, though it's unclear what legal avenues are available.
As Oregon Public Broadcasting's Tony Schick first reported on Feb. 8, Texas-based Zenith Energy is expanding and upgrading its rail terminal on 5501 N.W. Front Ave., enabling it to more than double the number of rail trains offloaded on site, where the oil is then transfered onto ocean-going vessels for export. Zenith says it obtained the necessary permits in 2014, two years before the City Council adopted a tough new ordinance sharply restricting the expansion of fossil fuel terminals in the city.
A coalition of environmental groups that lobbied for the fossil fuel terminal ordinance sent a joint letter to the Portland City Council on Feb. 13, asking the city to freeze permits already issued to Zenith and explore other options to halt the expansion of oil shipments.
Wheeler issued a news release Tuesday stating his opposition to expanded oil shipments at the Zenith site, formerly owned by Arc Logistics. "I am committed to undertaking whatever action I am permitted to ensure that there are limits placed on this proposed expansion," Wheeler stated in the release. "I do not support the proposed activity at the Zenith site. The risks associated with running oil trains anywhere, let alone through a major city, are significant, as you might remember from the environmental catastrophe in Mosier, Oregon, three short years ago, when a 96-car oil train derailed."
Wheeler did not elaborate on his position at a Tuesday news conference. On Wednesday, his spokeswoman Eileen Park would only say that Wheeler is "looking into what his options are right now."
Megan Mastal, a spokeswoman for Zenith, issued a statement Wednesday morning saying the company's expansion will make the site safer to operate.
"These improvements include advanced emission-control technology as required by new regulations and upgrades to improve efficiency and environmental protection. Another part of the project is the installation of a state-of-the-art fire suppression/foam system and fire barrier wall along Front Avenue," she wrote.
Mastel said in her emailed statement that Zenith's expansion project complies with the terms of the city's 2016 fossil fuel terminal ordinance.
"Consistent with the 2016 zoning code amendment, we are not adding any storage tank capacity," Mastel wrote.
She pointed out that the ordinance specifically lists the estimated storage capacity of the Arc Logistics terminal at 1,518,000 barrels of asphalt and crude oil. That was used as a baseline to gauge future expansion proposals at the property, as well as other oil and gas terminals affected by the ordinance.
Zenith's facility is part of a cluster of oil and gas terminals in the industrial area north of downtown, on the west bank of the Willamette River, not far from Forest Park. That area is considered highly dangerous in the event of an earthquake, given nearby soil conditions and the presence of so many volatile substances stored in that area.
Mastal declined to answer further questions sent Wednesday by email.
Zenith's expansion is planned to give it the ability to offload 44 train cars at a time, said Dan Serres, conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper, one of the environmental groups opposing the project. With that expanded capacity, Zenith should be able to handle one full train every day or two, Serres said.
Nichlas Caleb, staff attorney for the Center for Sustainable Economy's Climate Justice Program, conceded that the Zenith expansion might be outside the sphere of the city's fossil fuel terminal ordinance even if it was in force when permits were granted, because the ordinance was based on storage capacity.
And it's unclear if the ordinance is even in effect right now because of legal challenges, Caleb said.
A series of Oregon court rulings upheld the city's constitutional right to enact the ordinance after it was challenged by oil companies, the Portland Business Alliance and other business groups. However, the ordinance was remanded to the city to address procedural rules, Caleb said. Environmentalists have been told the City Council expects to make the required revisions this spring.
"Its probably not in effect right now," Caleb said.
Still, he said Zenith's expansion violates "the spirit" of the city's fossil fuel terminal ordinance and a parallel resolution against further oil trains in the city, adopted by the City Council in November 2015.
Mia Reback, who is doing contract work against fossil fuel expansion for the Sustainable Energy and Environment Network, said the permits for the Zenith project were originally obtained by Arc Logistics for its expansion plans. Zenith plans "a different usage with different risks," Reback said, so it should be required to resubmit for the permits.
Zenith's expansions should enable it to handle a variety of fuels, including Bakken crude oil from North Dakota and Canadian tar sands, Serres said. The oil is so thick that Zenith is heating up each rail car before the oil can be removed and stored in its tank for further processing, he said.
The Center for Sustainable Economy, 350.PDX, the Audubon Society of Portland, Willamette Riverkeeper and Columbia Riverkeeper are pressing the city to do everything in its power to block Zenith from expanding rail shipments of oil here.
"We're really happy that the mayor is looking into that and taking as aggressive a look as possible," Caleb said. "We're not entirely ready to concede there's nothing the city can do."
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