Environmental activists took to water and land Tuesday morning to protest the possible expansion of the Zenith Energy facility, an oil transport facility located in northwest Portland’s industrial hub.
Zenith is seeking a Land Use Compatibility Statement (LUCS)—a document that determines whether an organization’s business is in line with the city’s values and policies—from the City of Portland. If the city grants the LUCS, Zenith will be one step closer to expanding their facility operations.
A group of 16 kayakers launched from the Swan Island boat ramp in north Portland Tuesday morning and paddled over to Zenith’s facility in a show of opposition to the expansion.
“We know they’re not going to [see a bunch of kayaks in water] and see it as a threat, but today’s message is that we can mobilize quickly and we care,” said Nick Haas, an environmental organizer.
The city blocked the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in Portland in 2016, but Zenith’s permit is still being considered because the facility applied for the expansion permit before the new city policy was in place. Because of the timing, the City of Portland is required to consider Zenith’s permit under the less restrictive conditions.
While environmental advocates argue the city has some legal standing to deny Zenith’s LUCS, many of them are expecting the city to approve the document some time in August.
Tuesday morning’s protest is a symbolic beginning to what Haas says is a month of action. Environmental groups in the Portland and Vancouver-area like Extinction Rebellion PDX, 350 PDX, and Mosquito Fleet plan to coordinate various protests, direct actions, and events surrounding Zenith and the city’s actions around fossil fuel infrastructure throughout August. The group also plans to have a large, family-friendly event on
August 22 in Cathedral Park. [UPDATE: The group has decided to delay this event until September. Stay tuned for details.]
While the group of kayakers paddled over to the industrial hub’s waterfront, about 20 members from Extinction Rebellion PDX and other environmental organizations parked the “Zenith Tank of Doom”—a model of one of the oil tank train cars—next to the facility’s front gate. The group chanted and called Commissioner Dan Ryan’s office, leaving voicemails urging Ryan to deny the Zenith permit. Ryan oversees the Bureau of Development Services, the agency in charge of the LUCS.
Ryan’s office could not be reached for comment.
While most of the oil trucks driving by the protest ignored the group, at least two drivers raised their fists in support while transporting oil through the industrial area. The industrial hub where Zenith is located holds more than 90 percent of Oregon’s gas and fuel—without the hub, the state would run out of fuel in less than a week.
“Our next step if the city wusses out is to really push hard on DEQ, and we’re also trying to get the governor involved,” said Lynn Handlin, one of the organizers of the protest. If the city approves the LUCS, Zenith then has to receive an air permit from the state DEQ—a process which includes a public comment period where environmental activists can voice their opposition. If Zenith does not receive the air permit they would not be able to legally operate.
While Handlin understands the city not wanting to spend taxpayer dollars in a legal battle with an oil company, she says that it’s a small price to pay in comparison to the environmental risks the facility poses to the surrounding community. A recent report from the city and Multnomah County found that the industrial hub where Zenith is located would cause one of the biggest oil spills in the world when the overdue Cascadia earthquake hits the pacific northwest.
“[Getting sued] is a far smaller burden than when this shit blows or [one of the oil trains] derails,” Handlin said. “Also, if the neighbors decide they want to sue the city because their air is shit in this area… there’s lots of people who can sue the city, it’s not just Zenith.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Zenith's expansion would lead to an increase in oil transportation. Zenith's potential expansion would increase the amount of biofuels the facility transports. The Mercury regrets the error.