Illustration by Jess Smart Smiley

A FEW LINES of zoning code are almost all that stands between Portland and 33.6 million gallons of propane.

Canada-based Pembina Pipeline Corporation wants to put a $500 million facility at the Port of Portland's Terminal 6 located in North Portland on the Columbia River. Pembina proposes delivering propane to Portland via 1.3-mile-long trains, storing the flammable liquid in tanks, and piping between 36,000 and 72,000 barrels a day onto floating storage tanks for transfer onto giant ships for export.

It's a mammoth project, potentially the largest infrastructure investment in Portland's history, and were it not for that zoning code—a bit of policy enacted to protect natural resources—process-loving Portlanders would have been largely left out.

"It was an allowed use and the port could have put the facility in with little or no oversight," says Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland. "They didn't realize a pipeline couldn't go through this zone; but for that snafu, there would have been no hearings."

Now there are hearings, including a six-hour marathon before the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission on April 7. More than 300 activists showed up for the meeting, with representatives from neighborhood associations, Native American tribes, and environmental groups all saying they are "deeply afraid" of possible derailments and explosions from freighted-in propane. Many also say allowing the facility would make Portland complicit in greenhouse gas emissions that come with fossil fuels.

The commission, in a 6-4 vote, recommended supporting the proposed zoning change, and sent the issue to Portland City Council for a final decision.

Activists want to know how this project almost slid by. How did a multi-billion dollar company that profits from the Alberta oil sands—a well-known environmental disaster zone—nearly get this enormous and controversial facility approved without the bulk of Portlanders knowing it was in the works?

The short answer: That's how our system works.

Pembina approached the port in May 2014, according to Port of Portland spokesman Steve Johnson. Just four months later, the parties had reached a nonbinding agreement. Johnson wouldn't comment on what he called "confidential business negotiations," but in the months those negotiations took place, it's clear both parties kept discussions low-key.

With just a handful of neighborhood meetings, Pembina and Portland officials—including Mayor Charlie Hales and Port Executive Director Bill Wyatt—announced they'd agreed on a partnership that gave the informal go-ahead for the facility.

At the time, Wyatt said Pembina needed to secure a building permit from the city, an air quality permit from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and maybe a water quality permit from the state.

Meanwhile, the Port of Portland Commission—a nine-member, governor-appointed group that sets port policy—didn't take a crack at the project at that time. The commission will consider approving a lease agreement if a deal is reached.

When asked about community outreach, Johnson referred to Pembina's website, which lists nine local associations—including Audubon—the company says it's "met, or been in dialogue, with" since September.

But some of those parties say the process was insufficient. According to Sallinger and neighbors of the proposed project, Pembina hasn't been forthcoming with information about plans for the export station it's eager to build near Kelley Point Park.

Sallinger calls the limited public outreach a "divide and conquer" process, claiming that officials insisted on meeting with stakeholder groups individually and refused to hold all-inclusive public meetings. He also says the planning and sustainability commission did a "woefully inadequate" job at vetting Pembina's safety and environmental sustainability claims.

"The planning commission is really supposed to do a deep dive," Sallinger said. "Basically what they did is forward a bunch of vague concepts to city council."

Next, the port deal goes before city commissioners. City council is tentatively scheduled to consider the proposal on April 30, a date that Nick Caleb—a Concordia professor and attorney who's challenging Commissioner Steve Novick for his council seat in 2016—says is too soon.

"It is extremely odd for the city to be advancing this project so quickly," says Caleb, suggesting that a propane facility could contradict the city's Climate Action Plan. "This rushed process is extremely problematic given the size of this export facility, the volume of propane which would move through our city and be stored at the port, and the enormous climate impacts of the project were it to become operational."

The question before council is the same zoning tweak that went before the planning commission. Terminal 6 is located on land that's zoned for industrial use, but is also protected by an environmental overlay zone to safeguard wildlife along the Columbia River. Pembina's project calls for a pipeline to pump propane from the land-based storage tanks, across the overlay zone, and into a floating dock on the river. But the environmental overlay bans transportation of hazardous materials—including propane—via pipeline ["A Clog in the Pipe," News, Oct 15, 2014].

Pembina and proponents of the project tout propane's use as a clean fuel, point out the millions in revenue Pembina's project will pump into Portland's economy, and claim the facility will be safe. Protesters vehemently disagree—a fact that will almost certainly lead to another marathon hearing later this month.

"There is an extensive effort to greenwash this facility and somehow suggest the city is moving this forward in part because it helps address global climate change," Sallinger says. "That is pure bullshit. The only thing green about this project is the money Pembina is waving around trying to get folks to jump onto their bandwagon."