By Don MacGillivray
Ever since the creation of the oil fields in the Dakotas and Central Canada, the Pacific Northwest has been concerned that railroads will ship large amounts of crude oil through our attractive landscapes, rivers, and towns. Every time fossil fuel transportation activities are announced, protests are organized to object to this happening.
A company named Zenith Energy purchased an underutilized rail yard on the west side of the Willamette River across from Swan Island in 2014. Now it is being improved so it will be the transfer point for large quantities of crude oil brought in by train from the Bakken oil fields in Canada and loaded onto ships destined for China.
The new Zenith Energy terminal and tank farm is located on NW Front Ave. at the previous site of the Will Bridge Asphalt Refinery, founded in 1947.
It is forty-eight acres and it was purchased by Zenith for $61 million. The energy company purchased this underutilized tank yard and has transformed it into a modern, efficient oil storage facility that can process millions of gallons of oil products.
The company calls the project a “modernization” rather than an expansion. The facility will able to service forty-four rail cars, a three hundred and fifty percent increase from the original dozen rail cars.
They expect to make this facility the premier hub for the storage of bio-fuels in the Pacific Northwest. It is the only such facility owned by Zenith on the West Coast.
This endangers Portland’s Willamette River below and Forest Park above the site. The trains will arrive in Portland by going along the north side of the Columbia Gorge into Vancouver, across the Columbia River near Interstate 5, near the Smith and Bybee Wetlands, through the neighborhoods of St. Johns, Portsmouth and University Park, and across the railroad bridge before arriving at the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe(BNSF) railyard. The cargo will be pumped into large storage tanks in the Zenith yards and after a few days, it will be loaded into seagoing tankers bound for China
Marine oil tankers carry about 200,000 barrels of oil that ships to China, Korea, or California. There has been an increase in train traffic recently with some of the trains having over a hundred cars loaded with oil.
Ten shipments valued at over $80 million were made in 2018 and already five shipments have been made in the first quarter of this year with expectations that increases will continue.
The oil is an extremely dangerous commodity. One quarter of the residents in Multnomah County live within the danger zone defined as a half mile from the route traveled by the oil trains.
While the risk may be characterized as “small,” there have been several catastrophic accidents involving oil trains in the last ten years.
In 2016, a Union Pacific oil train derailed and exploded along the Columbia River near Mosier and 10,000 gallons of oil was spilled in the river and into the city sewers.
Clouds of noxious smoke polluted the air for days. Luckily no one was injured, but cleanup was difficult and expensive.
In 2013, an oil train accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec caused a fire and explosion that killed forty-seven people. The blast radius was more than a half a mile.
Thirty of the town’s buildings were destroyed and thirty-nine of the forty-two remaining buildings were demolished and replaced. The insurance settlement was over $50 million, the victims received over $430 million, and te cleanup took well over five years.
The BNSF Railway reports that they haul on average three trains carrying at least one million gallons of crude oil through Multnomah County each week although the number of shipments are not public record.
In the State of Washington rail shipments are required to be reported at least twenty-four hours in advance, but Oregon has little review of oil train activities.
State and local officials are not prepared for major rail accidents involving petroleum products and the potential scale of an accident is far beyond the capabilities of local first responders.
The expense of preparing for such events is only outweighed by the potential cost of a serious accident. Companies involved assure us that their safety measures are excellent, but the record speaks for itself.
Zenith Energy is very concerned about safety and the environmental factors involved in the transport and storage of their products. They have updated fire protection systems and worker safety.
With their safety record, they believe the potential risks are minimal and they have followed all the rules and regulations in building this facility.
The Oregon Legislature has worked for years to improve the safety of trains transporting oil through Oregon.
House Bill (HB) 2209, requires railroads that own or operate “high hazard train routes” to develop detailed safety and environmental response plans demonstrating their ability to respond to and cover the cost of an oil spill.
It also authorizes a fee for railroads to support the state’s efforts to respond in the event of a train derailment or spill. This is the beginning, rather than the end, of making railways safe and sustainable over time.
HB 2209 passed the Oregon House of Representatives and is now in the Oregon Senate for consideration. It is expected to pass this session and be signed into law.
This facility was built because Zenith studied the laws and regulations and was able to legally create this new, state of the art, oil storage facility. New demands for oil resources have created the need for new facilities on the Northwest Coast, but the state and city authorities did not anticipate this occurring.
Now, in spite of the public objections, it is not going away. It remains to be seen what can be done to insure that a disaster does not occur or, if it does, that it can be handled with minimal losses of life, property, and environmental damage.