Twenty community and environmental groups are calling on Portland leaders to rescind the land use permit granted to oil transporter Zenith Energy in October, due to the city neglecting to collect public feedback on the decision. The city contends that public engagement was not necessary when evaluating Zenith's permit application.

“For years, thousands of community members have expressed their opposition to Zenith’s harmful oil operations and have worked closely with the City of Portland to protect us from this threat,” said Kate Murphy, an organizer with environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper, in a press release following the permit approval. “For the City to suddenly make a decision without public input that gives a green light to five more years of dangerous oil trains plowing through our towns is a slap in the face to communities impacted by Zenith’s operations.”

Zenith Energy transports hundreds of millions of gallons of oil per year at its facility in Northwest Portland. In 2021, as part of a standard air permit renewal process, Portland city leaders denied the company a Land Use Compatibility Statement (LUCS)—a land permit required for the company to legally operate. The denial of the permit came after months of community pressure, including thousands of community calls and letters, as well as comments from over 20 regional politicians urging the city to deny the LUCS to protect Portlanders from potentially explosive oil trains and move away from fossil fuel reliance. In its denial, the city said that Zenith’s crude oil operations were not compatible with Portland’s land use and planning goals, particularly when it comes to climate goals.

After being denied the LUCS, Zenith launched a legal battle against the city to try to overturn the denial. The company also submitted a new application—this time offering to trade its current crude oil operations for a nearly 100 percent renewable fuels operation in five years. Renewable fuels is an umbrella term for fuels made from plant and animal matter that can produce lower carbon emissions than typical fossil fuels. Within three weeks, Portland approved Zenith’s new application without holding an official public comment period—a decision that advocates believe goes against city code.

Environmental advocates characterize the city’s approval of the LUCS as a “backroom deal” with Zenith that continues to jeopardize the health and safety of Portlanders for at least the next five years. City Commissioner Dan Ryan, who oversees the bureau responsible for approving Zenith’s LUCS, characterized the compromise as a “strong signal to industry that Portland will work with partners towards cleaner air and less dependence on fossil fuels.”

Dozens of community groups and activist organizations, including Columbia Riverkeeper, Breach Collective, Portland Audubon, and Neighbors for Clean Air, are now calling on Ryan and the city to exercise its ability to rescind Zenith’s LUCS. Portland leaders can choose to rescind the land permit any time before the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) approves Zenith’s air permit. The DEQ is currently waiting for Zenith to submit an application for a new air permit before March 31, 2023, which will then kick off the DEQ’s evaluation period.

Advocates sent a letter detailing their concerns to Ryan and the rest of city council earlier this month. Ryan’s office declined to comment on the letter, noting that the city attorney’s office may respond to the letter in the future. The city attorney’s office did not immediately respond to questions on whether a public comment period should have been included in the evaluation of the LUCS.

According to the Bureau of Development Services (BDS), which was responsible for reviewing Zenith’s LUCS application, a public comment period was not required as part of the review process. When Zenith’s LUCS application was received, BDS staff was responsible for evaluating whether or not the company’s proposed operations fit within Portland’s existing land use and planning goals, which is characterized as an administrative decision that does not require public input. In a letter sent to advocacy groups on November 21, BDS director Rebecca Esau indicated that the decision was out of the city’s hands and urged advocates to direct their concerns to the DEQ.

“The City completes the LUCS as an administrative matter,” Esau wrote. “Consistent with Oregon law and the City of Portland’s Zoning Code, there is no required notice or hearing on a LUCS. The City reviews all LUCS in the same manner and does not establish new processes or procedures based on individual applications.”

During a community forum on Zenith hosted by Columbia Riverkeeper last week, activists urged the crowd to call and email Portland City Council, hopeful that a major showing of public opposition may sway the city to reconsider its approval of the plan.

Advocates are also keeping an eye on a new DEQ-led process to develop rules on how the state should evaluate the physical stability of fuel tanks like Zenith’s. This work is required under a bill passed earlier this year that requires fossil fuel tank owners in Oregon to evaluate their tank’s seismic resilience by 2024. The law, spearheaded by Senator Michael Dembrow who represents areas of East Portland from Mt. Scott-Arleta to Parkrose, was created to mitigate the threat of the Critical Energy Infrastructure (CEI) Hub—a six-mile stretch of industrial oil tanks in Northwest Portland that supply over 90 percent of the state’s liquid fuel.

A 2021 report commissioned by Multnomah County and the city of Portland found that, in the event of a major earthquake, tanks at the CEI Hub—including Zenith’s tanks—could spill nearly 200 million gallons of liquid fuel into the Willamette River and nearby soil due to the tanks’ inability to withstand the seismic event. 

The Multnomah County report found that Zenith’s tanks, like the majority of the tanks in the CEI Hub, were too old to have the seismic technology to withstand a major earthquake and would spill all of their contents. In its approved LUCS application, Zenith submitted two independent studies that found that its facility’s largest tanks would not spill during a major earthquake. It’s not immediately clear why the reports’ findings diverge so significantly.

A seat reserved for Dan Ryan at a community forum on Zenith. Isabella Garcia

Speaking at a Zenith-focused event hosted by Columbia Riverkeeper last week, Dembrow cautioned that while Zenith’s plans to transition to transporting renewable fuels may reduce carbon emissions in the city, it does not inherently make the facility’s operations safer for Portland.

“From a risk perspective, [renewable fuels are] just as risky in terms of spill into the river and explosions,” Dembrow said. “They are still volatile.”

Dembrow didn’t condemn the city’s deal with Zenith during his comments, instead urging for the mitigation of risk as the city looks to renewable fuels as a tool to reach its climate goals. While Dembrow’s sentiments slightly differed from the anti-Zenith crowd, the Senator was praised for showing up. Ryan was invited to attend the community forum but never responded, so an empty suit on a chair sat in his place.