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Wheeler seeks to block expanded oil by rail shipments

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PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Environmental groups and Mayor Ted Wheeler are seeking to block the expansion of oil shipments by train at the Zenith Energy terminal in Northwest Portland, though it’s unclear what legal avenues are available.

As Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Tony Schick first reported on Feb. 8, Texas-based Zenith Energy is expanding and upgrading its rail terminal on 5501 N.W. Front Ave., enabling it to more than double the number of rail trains offloaded on site, where the oil is then transferred onto ocean-going vessels for export. Zenith obtained the necessary permits to do its work in 2014, two years before the City Council adopted a tough new ordinance sharply restricting the expansion of fossil fuel terminals in the city.

Wheeler issued a news release Tuesday stating his opposition to expanded oil shipments at the Zenith site, formerly owned by Arc Logistics: “I am committed to undertaking whatever action I am permitted to ensure that there are limits placed on this proposed expansion,” Wheeler stated. “I do not support the proposed activity at the Zenith site. The risks associated with running oil trains anywhere, let alone through a major city, are significant, as you might remember from the environmental catastrophe in Mosier, Oregon, three short years ago when a 96-car oil train derailed.”

Wheeler spokeswoman Eileen Park said Wheeler is “looking into what his options are right now.”

Megan Mastal, a spokeswoman for Zenith, issued a statement late Tuesday saying the company’s expansion will make the site safer to operate.

“These improvements include advanced emission-control technology as required by new regulations and upgrades to improve efficiency and environmental protection. Another part of the project is the installation of a state-of-the-art fire suppression/foam system and fire barrier wall along Front Avenue,” she wrote.

A coalition of environmental groups that lobbied for the fossil fuel terminal ordinance sent a joint letter to the Portland City Council on Feb. 13, asking the city to freeze permits already issued to Zenith and explore other options to halt the expansion of oil shipments.

But Mastel said Zenith’s expansion project complies with the terms of the city’s 2016 fossil fuel terminal ordinance.

“Consistent with the 2016 zoning code amendment, we are not adding any storage tank capacity,” Mastel wrote.

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN 6 News media partner.

She pointed out that the ordinance specifically lists the estimated storage capacity of the Arc Logistics terminal at 1,518,000 barrels of asphalt and crude oil. That was used as a baseline to gauge future expansion proposals at the property, as well as other oil and gas terminals affected by the ordinance.

Most of those terminals, like the Zenith one, are located in the industrial area north of downtown, on the west bank of the Willamette River, not far from Forest Park.

Zenith’s expansion could be defined as fitting into a loophole in the ordinance because it is streamlining operations to handle more rail shipments without increasing its on-site storage capacity.

But there are other legal obstacles for opponents of the Zenith project.

“Right now, it’s unclear whether the ordinance is even in effect because of the legal claims,” said Nicholas Caleb, staff attorney for the Center for Sustainable Economy’s Climate Justice Program, in Portland.

A series of Oregon court rulings upheld the city’s constitutional right to enact the ordinance after it was challenged by oil companies and other business groups. However, the ordinance was remanded to the city to address procedural rules, Caleb said. Environmentalists have been told the City Council expects to make the required revisions this spring.

“Its probably not in effect right now,” Caleb said.

Even if it was in effect, Zenith’s proposed expansion “likely is not inside that sphere of regulation,” he said, because the company isn’t seeking to expand its oil storage capacity used as a gauge of the terminal’s size.

Still, the Center for Sustainable Economy, 350.PDX, the Audubon Society of Portland, Willamette Riverkeeper and Columbia Riverkeeper are pressing the city to do everything in its power to block Zenith from expanding rail shipments of oil here.

“We’re really happy that the mayor is looking into that and taking as aggressive a look as possible,” Caleb said. “We’re not entirely ready to concede there’s nothing the city can do.”

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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