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Willamette, Columbia Riverkeepers plan to sue Zenith Energy for violating the Clean Water Act in federal court.

COURTESY PHOTO: COLUMBIA RIVERKEEPER - A photo shows an excavator and recently moved piles of dirt at Zenith's crude oil terminal in NW Portland, according to environmental protection groups. Unpermitted construction at a crude oil shipping terminal on the banks of the Willamette River violated federal laws protecting several Oregon waterways from runoff pollution, two environmental groups claim.

The Riverkeeper groups for the Willamette and Columbia rivers announced their intentions to sue Zenith Energy Terminal Holdings, which operates the sprawling oil train unloading facility at 5501 N.W. Front Ave. in Portland, for "impermissibly discharging pollutants" since at least last April.

The pollution allegedly happens every time rain flows off the property into the river. In drizzly Rose City, that happened roughly 90 times — every time more than 0.1 inches of precipitation fell in a 24-hour period — the groups claim.

COURTESY GRAPHIC: COLUMBIA RIVERKEEPER - A tally created by local environmentalists shows the dates when Zenith's stormwater runoff would have allegedly violated federal law. "Once they've disturbed the dirt, and until they take some steps to ensure that storm water isn't running into the river, it's basically a violation every time it rains," said Columbia Riverkeeper staff attorney Erin Saylor in a phone interview.

The formal 18-page notice of intent to sue starts the clock on a 60-day period, required by the Clean Water Act, giving Zenith the chance to clean up the alleged violation before the lawsuit is filed in federal court.

The Portland Tribune first revealed last year how Zenith plans to ramp up operations at the tank farm by building $24 million worth of rail infrastructure and pumps that the company says will only be used for offloading and storing biofuels. The bulk storage company has withdrawn permit applications to build a pipeline at the same area.

But the Riverkeepers said Zenith has surreptitiously been "moving dirt" at the facility without an OK from the government, with the alleged unlawful construction including the removal of trees, site grading and construction of a silt fence around most of the renewable fuel project construction area.

Those actions would require a general stormwater permit from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality as part of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System. Zenith applied for such permission from the DEQ in May, but never received the stamp of approval after state officials required a land use compatibility statement from Portland City Hall, the Riverkeepers say. City planners subsequently required Zenith to provide more information in September about their intentions and the company didn't comply, according to the notice.

"We're concerned because Zenith's expansion could potentially draw even more oil trains down to the Columbia River," said Saylor. "We want to make sure that we hold them accountable to the law."

Local activists have had little faith in Zenith, whose owner is a private equity firm with $56 billion in assets under management, since it snapped up a disused asphalt company and transformed it into the bustling oil shipping center in 2017. Eco-groups staged a blockade of the railway spur that leads to the facility in 2019, leading to more than a dozen arrests. Saylor pointed to the fiery oil train derailment north of Seattle on Dec. 22 as evidence that the risk is real, especially as Portland's tracks run right through the heart of the city.

Saylor said Zenith is primarily shipping Baaken crude oil to refineries, which is stored "at a much higher vapor pressure, and consequently may be more likely to explode."

Representatives for Zenith declined to comment.


Zane Sparling
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