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Regulation coming to Portland oil facilities as state looks to avert massive spill after the 'big one'

Experts have been concerned about an environmental catastrophe, potentially one of the worst in U.S. history, at the facility for more than a decade.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon regulators will soon be requiring oil companies with facilities in Northwest Portland to tell the state how their tanks will fare when a massive Cascadia Subduction Zone quake hits the Pacific Northwest.

The Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub is a collection of roughly 600 large oil storage tanks that line a 6-mile stretch of the Willamette River's west bank. Experts have been concerned about a massive spill, potentially one of the worst in U.S. history, at the facility for more than a decade.

Now, thanks to legislation passed earlier this year, the state will require the companies to perform assessments of their facilities for seismic vulnerability and create mitigation plans to minimize risk in case of a magnitude 9 earthquake.

"Spillage of fuel into the Willamette, and then that fuel making its way into the Columbia, looks inevitable if we don’t take steps to avoid it," said State Senator Michael Dembrow, chief sponsor of the legislation. "How do those of us who are legislators, or how do any of us, live with ourselves if we haven't taken steps to ward off the worst that could happen?"

The first report outlining the threat at the hub was released in 2013. The most recent report came out just a few months ago, with several other reports in the interim. Each of them outlined the potential for catastrophe at the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub, also known as the tank farm.

The biggest risk to the tank farm rises from the soil it sits on. The river lowlands along the Willamette are prone to a phenomenon called liquefaction when the ground shakes.

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"Every time you go to the beach and wiggle your toes in the sand and your feet sink in a little bit and the holes fill up with water, that's basically liquefaction," said Chris Goldfinger, a marine geologist at Oregon State University.

"On a bigger scale, if you build a structure on that, on unstable ground, it does the same thing. All the grains scrunch closer together, and the water comes out and the ground will settle from a few inches to maybe a few feet."

That type of ground deformation would spell trouble at the tank farm. More than 90% of the 415 active tanks were built before 1993, and were not subject to modern seismic safety codes. Estimates for the resulting spill range from around 100 million to 200 million gallons of jet fuel, gasoline, diesel, bunker oil and other various petroleum products.

Roughly 40% of that could spill directly into the Willamette, according to Mike Kortenhof, who is overseeing the new regulatory program for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

"It’s been said that the spill would exceed that of the recent Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico," he said.

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The fallout from such a spill would be far-reaching.

The Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub handles 90% of the liquid fuel for all of Oregon and 100% of the jet fuel used at Portland International Airport. It usually holds no more than six days worth of supply. If the hub is significantly damaged, the state would almost immediately face a gas shortage just as recovery efforts get underway at the coast, where a tsunami is likely after a quake, and in Portland, home to roughly 1,600 unreinforced masonry buildings that are at risk of crumbling, as well as around the rest of the region, which is likely to see widespread damage.

Jay Wilson, the resilience coordinator for Clackamas County Emergency Management, said the tanks in Northwest Portland could be just one of many disasters unfolding at the same time. Under most emergency scenarios, he said mutual aid would come from other cities, counties and states.

"The Cascadia event will throw a wrench in all that, though, because the entire western portion of Washington, Oregon and Northern California are all going to be affected simultaneously," Wilson said. "To have to respond to that oil spill following an earthquake, we're not going to have what's needed."

Aside from the logistical challenges presented by a widespread failure at the tank farm, the environmental impacts would be far-reaching and long-lasting, according to Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper.

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"The sediments in the near shore area in most river systems, which are really the most biologically productive, those areas would be completely coated in oil and other related materials," Williams said. "So having an earthquake of that magnitude hit this area with the infrastructure we have, would be just highly detrimental to this whole system."

A spill would also create a toxic plume that is likely to blow across the river into historically Black neighborhoods of North and Northeast Portland, according to the most recent report. In addition to all that, the tank farm also sits at the foot of Forest Park, is full of flammable material and is criss-crossed by high-voltage power lines, so the likelihood of an explosion and fire are high. 

We asked Dembrow, given the scale of the potential disaster, why lawmakers hadn't acted sooner, given that the first report on the tank farm's vulnerabilities came out nearly a decade ago.

"I think there was just resistance from industry and resistance from people who felt that this is something the tank owners should be responsible for themselves," he said, noting that the state will be paying for oversight out of the general fund with the companies expected to foot the bill for what will likely be costly retrofits.

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Senate Bill 1567 is clear that the companies will be required to provide assessments and mitigation plans, but there remains much to be figured out before the June 1, 2024 deadline. A newly formed rules advisory committee – with stakeholders from industry organizations, neighbors of the facility, environmental advocates and others – met for the first time last week to begin crafting rules that will eventually dictate the standards which the companies will be held to.

KGW News reached out to each of the 10 companies identified in the reports as having tanks that are at risk of failure and asked whether they had already conducted assessments or drafted mitigation plans in case of a spill. 

Most of them failed to respond, but a spokeswoman from Kinder Morgan said the company regularly runs safety drills and, while its older tanks have not been retrofitted, its newer tanks were built to modern seismic safety standards. The company did not say whether it had completed a seismic safety assessment.

A spokesman from Nustar Energy also did not provide any documents, but said the company has always prioritized environmental, worker and community safety in all its operations.

The only company to provide any documentation was Zenith Energy. A spokeswoman sent KGW News seismic assessments for four of the company’s tanks, which she said were deemed to be most vulnerable to earthquakes, performed by a local third-party engineering firm earlier this year. The assessment recommended replacing some valves and other small fixes, but found the tanks were likely to hold up in a major quake.

Williams, from Willamette Riverkeeper, said he was glad the companies are taking the threat seriously, but that oversight from the state has been needed for a long time.

"It’s overdue. Thankfully we’re getting to it and hopefully that will pay dividends down the road," he said. "They have the luck of being on the Willamette River, of having this infrastructure in a place historically where its easy to transport bulk goods like petroleum products, but they also bear the brunt of protecting the river for the public because it's the public’s river."

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