Advocates call on county for action against tar sands and crude oil by rail exports in Portland

On May 23rd, organizers and health advocates testified before the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners in opposition to a new fossil fuel project in Portland: the Zenith Energy facility importing oil trains of Canadian heavy crude, or ‘tar sands’, for shipment to international refineries. Dr. Theodora Tsongas, Lluvia Merello and Regna Merritt of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Mia Reback of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network spoke about the many public health risks of tar sands and crude oil trains, and urged the County Commissioners to oppose the project and fund a Fossil Fuel Risk Assessment of the full health and safety impacts of fossil fuel infrastructure within the county.

Tar sands oil is widely regarded as the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel, both because of the energy needed to extract it from the boreal forests of Alberta (clearcutting, strip-mining, and hydraulic injection), and because of its chemical makeup. High in noxious sulfur, thick and sluggish, the oil requires a toxic cocktail of chemical diluents for the substance to be transported and burned. And unlike other oils, when tar sands heavy crude spills it sinks into rivers and groundwater, poisoning the surrounding areas and sickening workers while making cleanup effectively impossible.

A recent wave of grassroots opposition to tar sands pipelines has coincided with greater production in the Alberta, Canada tar-sands region. One way the industry has responded to pipeline resistance and its glut of oil has been to quietly increase oil by rail export. Unlike new proposals, such as the embattled Keystone XL pipeline, oil by rail has few environmental reviews and little oversight—despite putting communities in direct proximity to derailments, spills, and deadly explosions.

“Over the past few days we have seen oil unit trains sitting in densely populated areas.” Dr. Theodora Tsongas, an epidemiologist, said in her testimony before the County Commissioners. “We have seen increases in the number of unit trains coming through the county on their way to the Zenith facility. This is extremely troubling. We ask for your strong support to discourage and shut down this illegal operation.”

Tar Sands Through Portland

In December 2017, Zenith Energy Management, a startup fossil fuel export company funded by the private equity giant, Warburg Pincus, bought an existing asphalt and crude oil facility in Portland’s Northwest Industrial Park. A month later, they began importing the oil on rail lines through the Columbia Gorge and North Portland neighborhoods for export to refineries in China,  South Korea, and California. Using an old site with 2014 permits acquired from the previous owner, Arc Logistics, Zenith has begun construction to expand its facility to quadruple its crude oil exports. This flies in the face of Portland’s Fossil Fuel Terminal Zoning Amendments, which ban new bulk fossil fuel terminals and restrict the expansion of existing ones. Zenith, meanwhile, has claimed it does not violate the law because it will not expand its storage capacity, only its exports.

At the Multnomah County Board Meeting, Regna Merritt, the Healthy Climate Program Director of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, thanked the Commission for their past support opposing oil by rail projects in the region, and gave a detailed account of what a spill would mean for public health.

“Crude oil contains high levels of volatile air toxins that, when released through a spill, threaten the lives of residents and workers. We are particularly concerned about the increased risk of exposure from hydrogen sulfide and benzene.” Merritt went on to describe how exposure to benzene can cause leukemia and other diseases, while hydrogen sulfide can suffocate people around the spill site, even as “olfactory fatigue” inhibits their ability to detect the gas. “These concerns were brought to the fore just a couple weeks ago when a crude oil rail car exploded as it was being cleaned out, killing two workers and injuring four more.”

The Community Response

The advocates who testified in front of county commissioners that Thursday morning are part of a growing coalition of environmental, health, and climate organizations that quickly mobilized in opposition to the oil trains. Sixteen organizations have joined as partners, including: the Center for Sustainable Economy, 350PDX, Columbia Riverkeeper, Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Portland Harbor Community Coalition, the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, the Audubon Society, OPAL-Environmental Justice Oregon, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Neighbors for Clean Air, the Portland Chapter of the Democratic Socialist of America, the Oregon Chapter of the Sierra Club, Human Access Project, Willamette Riverkeeper, and the Portland Sunrise Movement.

Several groups involved have organized teams to monitor the Zenith facility and incoming oil trains, held community forums, and in April, sent a letter to the city of Portland outlining how it can take action to stop the Zenith Facility and enact a managed, full decline of fossil fuel infrastructure in Portland’s greater Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub in-line with the known risks of a 8.0 magnitude earthquake and the County and City’s joint 100% renewable energy goals.

Community awareness and opposition has grown since the coalition began taking action. This was reflected at the County hearing on Thursday when Lluvia Merello, Oregon PSR’s Energy Justice Organizer, read aloud from the Cully Neighborhood Association’s resolution letter opposing the Zenith expansion. The resolution was made effective on May 14, during a meeting attended in support by Commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty and Chloe Eudaly.

A Managed Decline of Fossil Fuels

CSE and its partners’ ongoing resistance to the Zenith facility has helped create a space for more proactive climate action. At the hearing, Mia Reback of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, our sister organization, thanked Commissioner Meieran for introducing an budget amendment to fund the first phase of a county-wide fossil fuel risk assessment.

A study can help the county evaluate a possible ordinance requiring fossil fuel companies to carry financial surety (like insurance) to guarantee that they can pick up the costs of damage caused by their products.

“We know that information is key for our first responders to be best prepared if there is a disaster, and we know that that information will help our government officials plan better for the end of the fossil fuel industry,” said Mia Reback.

The Phase 1 Fossil Fuel Risk Assessment could be the first step towards a Fossil Fuel Risk Bond Policy, where polluters pay for the financial and economic risk their activities impose on the community in Portland and Multnomah County.

Reback thanked the commission for their 2017 vote for the 100% renewable energy resolution. She connected those energy goals with this fossil fuel assessment: “As we make that transition we need policies in place that hold polluters accountable for the pollution that they have lent here. The Phase 1 scoping study is the first step for future policies we can take to better protect our health and safety and hold polluters accountable for the risks they put on our communities.”

Help fight the tar sands and oil trains in Portland!

  • Call the City and County Commissioners’ offices, thank them for their climate action, and urge them to publicly oppose the Zenith Expansion project with a moratorium and a community forum.
  • Sign on to our letter to the City outlining a roadmap for stopping Zenith.


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