Portland’s Zenith Syndrome: The Gaping Hole in the “Thin Green Line”

“This is obscene.” – Jan Haaken, filmmaker of “Necessity Defense: I and II” on hearing of Zenith’s Land Use Compatibility Statement (LUCS) approved with no public process.

On October 3, the Texas-based fuel-storage corporation received yet another gift from the City of Portland. It came just two days before the Oregon Supreme Court refused to hear Zenith’s appeal of the denial of the LUCS from August 2021, which would have ended Zenith’s ability to operate in Portland’s Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub. Relying only on a promise that FIVE years from now, and more than 7 years on from Portland’s Climate Emergency Declaration, Zenith would be transporting 100% renewable fuels, the Bureau of Development Services agreed that continuing to transship fuels from dangerous oil trains running through the Columbia River Gorge and Portland neighborhoods is actually a “compatible” use of the land between the Willamette River and Forest Park. No opportunity for expert testimony nor public comment was possible before this decision. The news of this sudden decision, while not entirely unexpected, broke like a sonic boom for the thousands who’ve been engaged in the struggle to #ShutDownZenith. As one youngish organizer emailed me: “Holy holy f***. I have no words.”

Reactions poured in. Professor Bernadette Rodgers, one of the two scientists arrested in a direct action at the Portland Business Alliance office last April, exclaimed:

“I read about this in the Portland Mercury today and was completely shocked! How could this happen without any public input, or even any notice that it was happening? While the news, and the City Council, will try to spin this as a positive because of the various concessions and claims about renewables, those are way too little, too late for the climate emergency. The fact that City Council snuck this in under our radar only shows that they knew full well it would be unpopular, and they know full well it is not the right thing to do! I am beyond disappointed that our elected officials have taken the easy way out, and have failed again to prioritize public safety and to take the brave and bold action desperately needed to address our climate crisis. We are well past time for half measures and sellout BS like this. Shame on them!”

A member of the Braided River Collective and retired teacher, Jan Zuckerman, put this decision in a larger context:

“This comes as no surprise since the City is in the pockets of the Portland Business Alliance who has continued to fight against all environmental and climate justice policies for decades. The PBA made it perfectly clear that Zenith would get to move biodiesel through our neighborhoods and store them in a liquefaction zone regardless of the dangers to our communities. It was clear at the ‘listening’ sessions for the renewable fuel standards that this was a done deal. No real community input. Standards have yet to be set, but the LUCS was approved. Now the PBA is rearing its ugly head at the Economic Opportunity Analysis outreach planning sessions with the intent of locking us in to decades of pollution in the north reach of the Willamette. Once again, the process is not inclusive and limits the public’s ability to make decisions that impact the health of our river and our city for generations.”

Portland’s city government continues to provide a haven for Zenith, which has lied about its operations, been fined for violations, and contaminates the airshed with the headache-causing fumes from the fuels it ships. Meanwhile, Portlanders, especially in the northern parts of the city and along narrow Highway 30, risk catastrophic damage by derailment, explosion and fire. This is in direct and hypocritical contradiction to Portland’s long-burnished public image as a “green” city, which City officials have bragged about in national and international climate meetings. With this latest decision, the Bureau of Development Services has enlarged the gaping hole in the Pacific Northwest’s famous “Thin Green Line” which has stopped other fossil fuel development, especially for export.

What is it about Zenith’s several rail lines, the hundreds of parked oil cars, the death-to-the-Lower-Columbia risks laid out in the “Impacts of Fuel Releases” Report commissioned by Multnomah County Office of Sustainability and the City of Portland Bureau of Emergency Management, the pipelines and the transshipment platforms along Front Avenue, that seems like such a normal business for the Portland Business Alliance to support? The jobs at the facility are few. The fuels are not even sold in Oregon, for whatever dubious benefit we might get. The operations are a danger to the other fossil-fuel-based operations in the CEI Hub, which holds 90% of vehicular fuels for the entire state, and 100% of the jet fuel. The profits go back to Houston, Texas. The environmental risks and the ongoing air pollution and climate impacts stay right here in the Rose City. In the grim Groundhog Day that the City and Zenith keep looping us through, appeal after appeal, year after dangerous year, the sliver of land between the river and the urban forest is ever-more incompatible with safe storage and transshipment of fossil fuels, or even of “renewable” diesel with its dubious eco-safety claims.

The original meaning of “obscene” from the French does not refer to sexual activity, but rather to filth, physical material that is incompatible with health. Its synonyms in this deeper meaning include “inauspicious; ominous; disgusting, filthy; offensive, repulsive.” Documentarian Haaken’s choice of adjective is apt, as anyone who has spent time observing Zenith’s land use and smelling the air near the tracks can agree.

Zenith Energy has kicked off its greenwashing in Portland, and keeps the other “green” rolling into its bank accounts. The repetition of gaslighting and approval-granting should be given the name “Zenith Syndrome.” But this decision by the Bureau of Development Services deserves the antonym of “zenith” – it is the nadir, “the lowest point; time of greatest depression” for our city and region. Join us as we, together with allies, gather to discuss and prepare to fight back on Thursday, October 13, at the “Rumble on the River Community Forum: What’s Up with Zenith Energy and the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub in Portland.” Speakers include: Nick Caleb, Climate and Energy Attorney with Breach Collective; Micah Meskel, Activist Program Manager with Portland Audubon; Laurie King, long-time community advocate; Melanie Plaut, retired doctor and member of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility; John Wasiutynski, Multnomah County Office of Sustainability Director; and moderator Kate Murphy, Community Organizer with Columbia Riverkeeper. Register here: https://www.columbiariverkeeper.org/events/2022/zenith-forum-1013


Rumble on the River Community Forum

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