The Portland Bureau of Development Services issued a temporary certificate of occupancy — effective Thursday, July 18 — that allows Zenith to transfer oil using a newly-built racking platform.
The new platform can unload 14 railcars at a time, and Zenith plans to extend it on both ends by the end of the year, so that it can service the maximum allowed for the rail spur, which is 44 tanker cars. Previously, Zenith could unload 14 railcars at a time with its old platform.
"It will be an expansion when it's completed, there's no doubt," bureau spokesman Alex Cousins told the Tribune. "These new safety upgrades associated with Zenith's permit are significant, making the facility much safer to the community than their previous facility."
While not disclosing the increase in throughput, Zenith has suggested the work doesn't technically expand the plant, because the capacity to store oil on site won't rise, and the oil must be stored in the tanks before it is piped onto ships for export to domestic markets.
"If Portlanders are serious about transitioning to lower carbon fuels then they should support Zenith's planned infrastructure investments in renewables," said Zenith's vice president of operations, Grady Reamer, in an email. "In order to increase the use of renewables, the city needs the proper infrastructure and that is what Zenith is providing."
In April, environmentalists with Extinction Rebellion PDX turned the terminal into a stage for climate change protests and blockades that briefly disrupted operations and ultimately triggered 25 arrests. The group made headlines again on July 19 for pouring 50 gallons of fake blood outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Southwest Portland.
"Climate justice and immigration justice are intertwined," the group said in a statement.
According to city staff, the Zenith installation includes "state-of-the-art" improvements to safety infrastructure, including a foam fire suppression system, spill containment in the offloading area, a fire alarm and sprinklers.
City Hall blocked the expansion of all fossil fuel infrastructure in Portland in 2016, but the rule didn't apply to Zenith because the previous owners, Arc Terminals, applied for their permits in 2014.
"Decisions on permit applications are made according to the regulations that are in effect when the application is submitted," said Terry Whitehill, a city building official. "The project meets all applicable code requirements, so we have no authority to delay or deny [the permit]."
Mayor Ted Wheeler claims his hands are tied as well, but says he doesn't support the project because it's built on an earthquake liquefaction zone.
Geotechnical evaluations prepared for Arc Terminals don't dispute that notion. One report notes that the facility was originally constructed before the region's elevated quake risk was identified.
"Given the potential for liquefaction at this site, the cost of seismic restraint for the proposed structure would be prohibitive," states the 101-page report dated Feb. 18, 2015.
While a city-sponsored listening session on July 15 drew about 400 people, who largely appeared to be in opposition to Zenith's plans, the Bureau of Development Services announced the approved permit at the end of the night.
"As long as these facilities exist, it's important that they are as safe as possible," said BDS Director Rebecca Esau. "We completely share the Council's and public's concerns. Climate change is real, it's happening rapidly and action is needed now."
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Terry Whitehill. This story has also been updated based on a clarification from the Bureau of Development Services.
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