Some may see biodiesel as the answer to America's dependence on foreign oil, but residents of NW Portland's tiny Linnton neighborhood see it bringing only death and destruction—and with a side of toxic fumes.
Developers are currently in talks to build a biodiesel plant on the defunct Linnton Plywood Mill site, which has been sitting vacant along the Willamette River (off of Highway 30) for the last five years. It would be a windfall for the former employees of the mill, who own shares in the property, but Linnton residents like Pat Wagner are up in arms over the proposed plant.
"Our concern about the biodiesel refinery is simple, and that's that these things truly do explode," Wagner says. "Our homes sit right above where this refinery will be. Besides that, with Forest Park behind us, we're a tinderbox here."
In the past two weeks, Wagner has sent a barrage of angry emails to City Commissioner Randy Leonard, Portland's de facto champion of biofuels, who supports the Linnton plant. The theme of the emails: Biodiesel processing has caused fires and explosions in other parts of the country, and she wants Leonard to put the brakes on building a facility in Linnton.
"I support biodiesel as a short-term solution, but you've got to use some restraint," Wagner adds. "Randy Leonard doesn't have any self-restraint when he gets an idea in his head."
Leonard, though, believes the process is safe, arguing that biodiesel is less flammable than petroleum, and produces only glycerin as a byproduct. Besides which, the site sits directly between two gas tank "farms" and on top of the Olympic gas pipeline. In other words, there are currently far more dangerous things in Linnton than a biodiesel facility.
"In the spectrum of industrial uses that could go into that site, I would think they would welcome a biodiesel plant," says Leonard's chief of staff, Ty Kovatch.
But Wagner's vociferous objections appear to have less to do with the specifics of biodiesel safety, and more to do with the fact that city council has rejected the "Linnton Plan," which would have rezoned much of the neighborhood's industrial sites—specifically, the plywood mill—in order to build housing. Late last summer, council voted 3-2 against the idea, largely due to safety concerns; putting housing in an industrial zone, in an area closed off by railroad tracks, didn't seem like a safe idea. The "Linnton Plan" is officially dead, but building a biodiesel facility in the area could be the final nail in the coffin.
Now, both Leonard and Wagner are accusing each other of intellectual inconsistencies.
"Randy Leonard said when he voted against us that he couldn't put Linnton in harm's way," Wagner says, arguing that his support for a biodiesel plant would do exactly that.
And in an email last week to the North Portland Business Association, Leonard called Wagner's position ironic: "I also find it somewhat confusing that Ms. Wagner would characterize a biodiesel manufacturing facility at the site as somehow being more dangerous than housing on top of a major natural gas pipeline, and between two petroleum tank farms."