It’s not if, but when. For decades, Portland politicians, scientists, and activists have known our region—which spans the Cascadia Subduction Zone—has been long overdue for a massively destructive earthquake. Often, those clued into the looming quake will pause when speaking about the damage that will come if it occurs, then reflexively correct themselves: When the earthquake hits.
As in: When the earthquake hits, thousands of seismically unsound buildings will collapse. Portland’s drinking water supply will be cut off. Most of the city’s bridges will crumble into the Willamette River. There might not be any way to safely dispose of human waste.
And: When the earthquake hits, Portland could be the site of the largest oil spill in the history of the world.
That threat is thanks to the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub (CEI Hub), a six-mile strip of land in Northwest Portland—bordered by Northwest St Helens Road and the Willamette River—that is home to at least 10 fuel storage terminals owned by companies like Chevron, BP, and Kinder Morgan. With a combined storage capacity of 360 million gallons, the hub is home to 90 percent of Oregon’s fuel supply. This congregation of heavy tanks is located on a liquefaction zone, an area of soil prone to liquify, sink, and expand after an earthquake. When the quake hits, the hub’s heavy fuel tanks could easily come unmoored, spilling their contents into the Willamette and possibly setting Forest Park ablaze.
“You get to a point where the soil that was stiff enough to support all these fuel tanks... turns into a soup,” says Arash Khosravifar, an engineering professor at Portland State University (PSU).
It’s the job of Mike Myers, director of the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM), to consider worst-case scenarios for natural disasters and other emergencies in Portland, then form response plans fit for those situations. But when asked what an emergency response to an oil spill at the CEI Hub might look like, Myers is at a loss.
“I don’t know that I could paint a visual picture for you,” Myers says. “It’s like a Pandora’s box.”
The City of Portland and Multnomah County are currently working on a plan to assess the full risk the CEI Hub poses to the region, and to determine how to hold the private companies who own the hub’s facilities accountable should the worst come to pass. If local leaders are able to pull it off, it could become a model for municipal governments fighting the fossil fuel industry. It would also answer a question that’s on the minds of many Portlanders, voiced by Khosravifar:
“Now that we know about the risk,” he says, “what are we going to do about it?”
“THEY ACCEPTED THIS RISK”
Ever since the Port of Portland was created by the Oregon Legislature in 1891, the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers has been an important nexus for oil companies that ship their products internationally. Because of its geography, Portland became an obvious location for companies to build oil storage facilities, though they weren’t always concentrated in a single area.
In 1911, then-Portland Fire Chief David Campbell died in a fire that resulted when a fuel tank exploded at an oil distributing plant at Southeast Water and Salmon. Reeling from disaster, officials decided large oil tanks would no longer be allowed inside Portland city limits.
But no such rule existed in Linnton, then a small community located just northwest of Portland. Linnton soon became the new storage center for Portland's oil, and when Portland annexed the town in 1915, the city relaxed its oil storage standards to keep the Linnton tanks in place and allow for expansion. Today, the vast majority of Oregon's fuel supply—including crude oil, natural gas, diesel, jet fuel, and the chemicals used to cut and treat the fuel—sits in CEI Hub tanks. Beyond housing Oregon's fuel supply, the CEI Hub also serves as a loading and treatment area for companies shipping their products to other markets.
Residents of Linnton, now a Portland neighborhood, have tried over the years to reduce the risks of the CEI Hub and reclaim their waterfront for more community-oriented uses.
Shawn Looney, a member of the Linnton Neighborhood Association, points to a development plan drafted by residents in 2000, which proposed building recreation areas, shops, and condos between Northwest St. Helens Road and the Willamette. Speaking during a recent Multnomah County board meeting, Looney said the city concluded that the plan was “too risky” because of the oil tanks.
“When the city sided with industry,” Looney said “they accepted this risk for those of us living in Linnton.”
But while the risks were understood decades ago, it took outside pressure for local leaders to take serious action. City and county leaders have long been focused on preparing the city's bridges, pipe systems, and old brick buildings for an eventual earthquake, but it took community concerns over one particular facility in the CEI Hub to prompt action focused on the area.
In February of this year, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that Zenith Energy, an international oil shipping company that operates in the CEI Hub, was quietly expanding its footprint. Although the city had passed an ordinance in 2016 that banned new fossil fuel infrastructure in Portland, Zenith's expansion was allowed to continue thanks to a loophole: It had acquired a facility from Arc Logistics, whose expansion plan had been approved before the 2016 policy passed. However, the city did recently deny Zenith a permit to build underground pipes for transporting biodiesel and chemicals.
The news about Zenith's activity—and the fact that the company transports a high volume of crude oil through Portland by train—was a wake-up call for many Portlanders. Zenith has since been the subject of several protests and community forums, and banning the company from operating in Portland was one of the key demands of the local youth organizers of October's international climate strike.
For Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, the “confluence of outrage” over Zenith, along with increasing public knowledge of an earthquake risk, led to perfect timing for a novel policy: requiring fuel companies pay upfront for the damage their facilities will eventually cause during an earthquake.
“I've had so many people come up to me at town halls and tell me, 'I've been an activist for a really long time. This is the first time the government is doing something about this issue that gives me hope,'” Meieran, whose district includes the CEI Hub, tells the Mercury. “That’s incredibly powerful.”
“RESPONSIBLE FOR THE DAMAGE”
To date, the largest oil spill in the history of the world took place in 2010, when the BP-owned oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, dumping 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Atlantic Ocean. With a capacity to hold 360 million gallons of fuel, a CEI Hub spill has the potential to exceed the BP disaster.
It’s difficult for experts to quantify the immediate damage such a spill would cause to the Willamette and Columbia rivers, nearby Forest Park, and the communities downstream from Portland. Harder still is assessing the long-term damage such a catastrophe would inflict on the area’s ecosystem and how long it could take to clean up. Oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill is still in the Gulf of Mexico—and will be for the foreseeable future.
But there is one thing environmental advocates know: If a Portland-area earthquake were to occur tomorrow, the private companies that own facilities in the CEI Hub would not be held responsible for the full cost of the damage.
“These risks are very, very large, so it is hard to insure them, particularly when you know you’re sitting in a place with serious earthquake risks,” says Dan Serres, director of the Columbia Riverkeeper, a nonprofit that works to protect and restore the Columbia River. “They haven’t been forced to internalize it. There’s no law that says ‘If you’re going to create these risks, you’re going to have to deal with it.’”
John Talberth is the president of the Center for Sustainable Economy, an Oregon-based environmental policy think tank. After studying the aftermath of numerous oil spills in North America, he and his colleague Daphne Wysham came up with a new policy idea to help municipal governments dealing with fossil fuel facilities.
“Most of the time—especially with accident spills—the costs of anything that can go wrong with fossil fuel infrastructure... are passed on to taxpayers,” says Talberth. “None of those risks are being paid for by the fossil fuel industry.”
In 2016, Talberth and Wysham authored a report that proposed a solution: imposing mandatory “risk bonds” against companies that own and operate fossil fuel infrastructure. Doing so would mandate that fuel companies prepay for the full estimated clean-up costs that, in the event of a massive spill, would otherwise be passed on to taxpayers. The money would sit in a third-party fund until needed, at which point the local government would be able to access it. The process of risk bonding would begin with a cost evaluation, which would then be written into city or county code. It would almost certainly face pushback from the fuel industry.
Talberth and Wysham’s plan caught the attention of Meieran—who, after seeing how concerned her constituents were about Zenith and the CEI Hub, was already looking for a solution that could be enacted at the local level.
“Given that the risks do exist, the companies responsible for them need to be responsible for the damage that can be caused by their own dangerous product,” says Meieran.
But before Multnomah County can demand the companies to pay up, it needs to know how much to ask for. In late October, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution signaling its intent to conduct a full risk assessment of the CEI Hub—a comprehensive study to determine the full environmental and economic liability it poses for the area—and commit $50,000 to the effort. The City of Portland decided to support the county's efforts, pledging an additional $50,000. City and county leaders say the risk assessment is the first step to holding companies at the CEI Hub accountable, whether that's eventually done through risk bonding or another policy route.
“This is about disaster resilience and environmental concerns,” says Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees PBEM and backs the risk assessment plan. “What we know right now is that we do not have an appropriate plan. We need to ensure when a near-certain disaster occurs, those currently profiting off the operation of these businesses are in a position to pay for the response.”
The scope and methodology of the risk assessment, and the organization responsible for conducting it, have yet to be determined. But Meieran says it should start in the first half of 2020.
For John Wasiutynski, director for the Multnomah County Office of Sustainability, risk assessment and risk bonding are a start. But he says that even if they are put into effect, they won't necessarily solve the larger problems posed by fossil fuel infrastructure.
“It's really hard to imagine how you make fossil fuels completely safe,” he says. “They're such a part of our daily lives that we've become numb to that fact that there's a lot of risk associated with this infrastructure and with fuel.”
Wasiutynski says the county hopes the cost of risk bonding would be prohibitive enough to prompt companies to seismically upgrade their tanks and other infrastructure, so as to lower the overall risk mitigation costs.
While county and city leaders are focused on reducing the cost of a seemingly unavoidable disaster, environmental advocates hope that risk bonding will prompt companies to leave the CEI Hub altogether and relocate to less earthquake-prone areas.
“I hope it leads to a more swift transition [for the CEI Hub],” says Micah Meskel of Portland Audubon, an environmental protection group that has studied the CEI Hub for decades.
“NOT EASY STUFF”
It’s unlikely oil companies will pay up, upgrade their facilities, or leave without a fight. When Portland City Council passed its anti-fossil fuel infrastructure policy in 2016, it faced opposition from the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), which argued the policy would reduce local jobs and restrict or drive up the cost of fuel for Portland businesses. The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) also challenged the policy in a lawsuit against Portland that finally concluded—in the city’s favor—last year.
“I think that gives us a pretty good sense of where they'll head,” says Columbia Riverkeeper's Serres. “The WSPA has been out there pushing back on progressive policies for a long time, and unfortunately, the Portland Business Alliance has been right there alongside them.”
A spokesperson for the PBA told the Mercury that the organization has not yet taken a position on risk bonding. The WSPA did not respond to a request for comment.
“I would be concerned about a lawsuit,” says Meieran. “I would be concerned about how they could attempt to frame the narrative. But that's all the more reason to move forward.”
When Myers took the job of PBEM director earlier this year, he knew the CEI Hub would be one of his main focus areas, which he credits to the “huge community momentum” around Zenith and the CEI Hub.
Like Meieran and other local leaders, Myers knows that finding and executing a solution for the problems posed by the CEI Hub will be an uphill battle. But, he says, “I have to do something.”
“It's not easy stuff,” he adds. “If it was easy, it would've been done already.”