For Lluvia Merello, the decision to protest a crude oil train terminal in Northwest Portland is a simple one.
“If we do nothing, then it’s like we’re agreeing,” said Merello, who is an energy justice organizer with Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. “So for me personally, it’s about being able to say again and again, ‘We’re not okay with this in our community.’”
Merello is part of a group of Portlanders who are holding a 60-hour vigil this week outside of a terminal owned by Zenith Energy. Zenith has been the subject of local outrage since February, when OPB reported that the Houston-based company was significantly expanding its Portland facilities, and had quietly began importing crude oil sands last year. Oil sands are among the most toxic and environmentally harmful means of extracting oil.
Some in Portland were surprised by the news of Zenith’s expansion, given that Portland City Council passed a ban on new oil infrastructure development in 2016. But because Zenith had obtained a permit for its expansion work before that ban passed—and because that ban was challenged in court by the oil industry—Zenith was allowed to proceed.
At a July public forum, Portlanders packed into an auditorium at the University of Portland to express their concerns about the Zenith terminal, and urge Portland City Council to do whatever it could to oppose the energy company’s trains and facility expansion. They argued that running crude oil trains through Portland on a regular basis could result in a massively harmful oil spill, and that tacitly allowing Portland to serve the oil industry’s needs went against the city’s environmental values.
At the forum, Mayor Ted Wheeler and other city commissioners said that although they are philosophically opposed to Zenith’s presence and continued expansion in Portland, they weren’t sure how much power they have to bring Zenith’s actions to a halt.
The city has continued to issue construction permits to Zenith to continue the work that was originally approved prior to the 2016 oil infrastructure ban.
“Decisions on permit applications are made according to the regulations that are in effect when the application is submitted,” said BDS official Terry Whitehill in a July press release. “The city cannot change the goalposts now and apply new, different requirements after the applicant has already submitted their permit application and been approved for construction.”
At a September 18 City Council meeting, environmental activists presented a petition demanding the city stop issuing permits to Zenith. It had over 6,000 signatures.
“We need to do something bold, but we also have to do things that are legal,” Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty told the activists at that meeting. “I just want you to know that we are looking into every opportunity that we have to make Oregon the most unattractive place for companies like Zenith to operate in. … Just know we’re on it, even though you’re not hearing or seeing it. Know that we are working on this.”
In the meantime, a small group of Portlanders is taking matters into its own hands by holding a vigil outside the Zenith property this week. The vigil, which started Tuesday morning and will end at Thursday evening, is the collaboration of a number of different environmental groups, including 350 PDX, the Sierra Club, Extinction Rebellion, and others.
Merello said protesting Zenith is a personal issue for her, both as an indigenous woman and a resident of the Cully neighborhood, which Zenith trains run through.
“I pass some of these trains sometimes, and I can’t even see the end of it, they’re so long,” she said. “It’s really frightening to think of different schools I know on the train line, different businesses and communities that will be impacted [in the event of an oil spill].”
Seeing thousands of people turn out for last Friday’s climate strike, Merello said, is “definitely bringing me hope.”
“For me personally as an indigenous woman, it’s really about returning to our roots and respecting the earth and all that she has to offer,” she added.
The vigil participants are doing more than just protesting Zenith—they’re also keeping watch over the terminal. Volunteers are using a powerful telescope to keep track of how many trains enter the terminal throughout the 60-hour vigil, and how many of those trains bear the number 1267—an indication that they are carrying crude oil. Zenith hasn’t been forthcoming in its dealing with the city so far, so the vigil “trainspotters” want to compile their own data.
“We’re trying to take pictures and document times and numbers of cars, and how frequently,” said Landin, “because there’s dangerous things coming through our neighborhood and there’s reason to believe Zenith hasn’t been transparent about how much.”
Tara Ohta, one of the trainspotters, told the Mercury that she saw 12 crude oil trains come through the terminal on Tuesday morning alone. Nicholas Caleb, a staff attorney with the Center for Sustainable Economy, said the data trainspotters collect could help first responders be more prepared to respond to an oil spill.
As activists keep watch over Zenith, city commissioners are exploring their options. The 2016 oil infrastructure ban survived a legal challenge, but last year the Oregon Court of Appeals directed the city to make tweaks to the ordinance before it goes back into effect. City Council is expected to make those changes before the end of 2019.
There are actions the city could take to limit Zenith’s activity in Portland. An internal city memo obtained by the Oregonian last month revealed that Wheeler is considering several new restrictions on fossil fuel infrastructure, including requiring companies like Zenith to conform to stricter earthquake safety standards, and formally opposing any new Department of Environmental Quality permits for Zenith.
Portland City Council also plans to declare a climate emergency soon. Portland city code grants special powers to the mayor when an emergency is declared, but it’s not clear if any of those powers could be applied to the Zenith situation.
Caleb said he and other environmental advocates would like to see a concrete goal included in the emergency declaration.
“We want our policymakers to actually say that they have a goal of having no fossil fuel infrastructure there at some point in the future, so we can have a plan for the managed decline of that industry in Portland,” he said.
As OPB reported earlier this month, Zenith is now planning to place two pipes below its NW Front facility, which will be used to transport methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, or MDI, a chemical that can cause asthma and lung damage. Zenith will need an additional permit to add these pipes, and Caleb said it’s an opportunity for the city to directly resist the company. Portland city code includes a “good faith assessment” when considering permit approvals and continuations—and because Zenith has arguably not acted in good faith when dealing with the city, Caleb said, there might be a case for denying the permit.
“Zenith has not been a good faith actor,” Caleb said. “They misrepresented their projects several times in a way that the city should look at their claims suspiciously.”
Whether the city will go so far as to deny Zenith a permit—and whether such action would survive a legal challenge—is yet to be seen. But if the city isn’t prepared to take more drastic action against Zenith, Merello said that local environmental activists and lawyers will be more than happy to do it themselves.
“People in the community are looking at any kind of course of action,” Merello said. “[This vigil has] taken a lot of hours of planning and community involvement, and I think that speaks to how people feel about this.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article misattributed quotes to Maria Landin; it has been corrected to attribute them to Lluvia Merello.