If oil is moving through Oregon, it’s Michael Zollitsch’s job to know about it. He oversees the state’s emergency responses to oil spills and other environmental disasters.
But last March, when Bloomberg News reported oil from Canada’s tar sands was rolling through Zenith Energy’s storage facility in Northwest Portland on its way to Asia, it caught him by surprise.
“News to me!!” he wrote to his staff at Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, and to Richard Franklin, a regional spill coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Me, too!” Franklin wrote back.
It wasn’t the first time oil spill regulators were in the dark about oil shipments through Oregon, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Documents obtained by OPB under Oregon’s public records law show regulators struggled for months to get straight answers about what kind of oil was moving on trains — dubbed “rolling pipelines” by their critics — through Portland and when.
State officials resorted to tracking ships along the Columbia River and guessing how much oil they might be loading based on the amount of ballast water on board — a far cry from the 24-hour notice Washington facilities send regulators for all oil-by-rail shipments.
When DEQ did learn the chemical makeup of that oil, according to the documents, they discovered a potential risk of toxic inhalation for workers and neighbors of the facility: The oil contains enough hydrogen sulfide that the safety data sheets for the product call for spill responders to wear not just masks but fully supplied air, similar to a scuba tank.
Megan Mastal, a public relations representative for Zenith, which operates 24 facilities in the U.S. and internationally, said in an emailed statement thatthe company has been up front with regulators and that the oil it handles does not pose any additional hazards.
“Our customers trust us with safe and efficient storage of their critical product,” Mastal said. “Zenith provides services to some of the largest companies in the world and has passed their vigorous inspection and vetting requirements. We are proud of our employees and their dedication to our safety-first culture.”
For six years oil trains have been rolling through Oregon — including one in 2016 that derailed and exploded in the Columbia River Gorge. And yet, the government workers charged with preventing and cleaning up oil spills in Oregon remain as in the dark as ever about many of these shipments. That’s largely because of successful industry lobbying efforts and the reluctance of Oregon’s legislature to pass rules already enacted in neighboring states.
While lawmakers have passed bans on offshore oil drilling and fracking — both unlikely prospects in Oregon — they have done relatively little to regulate the real and present danger that oil could spill from trains rumbling through the state.
For the fourth session in a row, the Oregon Legislature is now considering new rules for oil trains. House Bill 2209 would require DEQ oversight of railroad oil spill planning and assesses fees on railroads to help pay for the state’s work.
Already this session, lawmakers have introduced two bills that would match the stronger requirements in Washington — and let them die without so much as a public hearing. Now, with the session in its 12th week, lawmakers are advancing a less restrictive proposal, House Bill 2209, which was developed in collaboration with Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway, among others.
This comes as oil-by-rail shipments out of Canada’s oil sands have been on the rise. Existing businesses in Oregon have quietly shifted operations to handle more of it, even as plans for brand new fossil fuel projects have been rejected up and down the Northwest.
With the loosest rules on the West Coast, environmentalists fear Oregon has become the path of least resistance for an oil that sinks in water and, they say, could devastate iconic fisheries and waterways.
On the Columbia River, a company known as Global Partners LP successfully changed its port lease to allow for heavy crude at its Clatskanie, Oregon, facility. That facility was originally built as a bio-refinery in 2009 with $36 million in green energy loans and tax tax credits from the state.
And on the Willamette River, an oil terminal owned by Zenith Energy in Northwest Portland is under construction to nearly quadruple railcar loading capacity at what used to be an asphalt plant.
“This is really troubling, to see that Oregon’s environmental laws aren’t standing up to oil trains in the way most people would expect. Particularly in the wake of the Mosier oil train disaster. It’s really alarming,” said Dan Serres, conservation director for the Columbia Riverkeeper.
DEQ’s attempts to regulate the Zenith terminal show how ill-informed and ill-prepared the state’s oil spill responders can be under the state’s current regulations for oil by rail.
There is some good news on the oil front, Oregon House Bill 2209 is moving, despite protest from the railroads and will hopefully become law this session. Please contact your state legislators and urge passage of HB 2209!