Report Back: Oregon DEQ Public Hearing on Zenith

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)’s public hearing about Zenith Energy took place on Zoom on August 10th. (Strangely, it was not recorded.) The majority of the meeting was about the water quality permit issues, and especially about spills.

The discussion was mostly about Zenith’s ability to respond to a major oil spill at the site. The “worst case scenario” for which they’re planning, insuring and willing to take some amount of responsibility is an Exxon Valdez type of spill: a single source of spill, with no natural disaster simultaneously impacting the area. Portland’s nightmare earthquake scenario would have many times that impact, with spilled oil poisoning the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, plus the Pacific Ocean off the Oregon coast.

DEQ’s representatives, including main speaker Scott Smith, said Zenith can’t be held responsible for “acts of god”, including the earthquake. He argued that it would not be reasonable to expect Zenith to have to plan for something like a terrorist bombing. Apparently, the earthquake we know is coming is not something they are expected to plan for. And certainly not something that Zenith should be responsible for. When asked about who would be held responsible, he didn’t really answer, only indicating that it wouldn’t be Zenith or the DEQ.

When asked about whether Zenith has enough insurance to cover a major disaster they said yes, because they do not count the catastrophic earthquake coming our way as something to insure for. They indicated that that is not reasonable or possible. Personally, I have earthquake insurance for my home. It is expensive and I have to do extra work to get it, but it seems important. But for Zenith? Nope.

The quantity of spills they “drill for” (meaning on a table top, not on site emergency drills) is just the amount in one of the storage tanks. They do not account for trains that may be on site.

I asked questions about Zenith’s substantially increased throughput. Their answer: it doesn’t really matter. They do their spill response drills based on what was in some fraction of the tanks on site in 2019. They don’t care how much oil goes through the entire facility, or how much is on the trains. But they did emphasize how proud they were of their (table top) response drills.

At one point I asked why the DEQ is considering allowing Zenith’s permits when the planet is burning up and shouldn’t we be reducing fossil fuel operations wherever possible? Their response: It’s “not in the scope of DEQs capacity to reduce operations,” totally ignoring the fact that they could reduce fossil fuel activity by denying the damn permit.

There is no air quality monitoring at the site. Why not? DEQ says we just don’t do that.

When asked if the surrounding community of mostly low income and otherwise marginalized communities were consulted, the DEQ staffers said they like to involve people in the drills but are limited. Notably, the question was not about drills at all, but rather about consulting with the neighboring community about their concerns with Zenith’s operations.

A Zenith executive said they would like to transition to renewable fuels over time. What timeline? “The market will determine that” and a very fuzzy maybe 5 to 15 years. She also said that “if we had the infrastructure in place we would switch to all renewable fuels today,” contradicting the earlier part of her statement. She was clearly trying to appeal to those wanting to deny Zenith’s Land Use Compatibility Statement and the negotiations with the City.

The only possible bright spot of the meeting to me was when asked if extraordinary circumstances, like the impending total collapse of life on Earth due to climate change, would have any impact on the air quality permit situation, the DEQ rep said something to the effect that extraordinary circumstances are sometimes considered. At this point, I was reminded of a quote published by investor advice firm Morningstar: “Climate change represents not only an existential threat to humanity but also material financial risk to investors.”

DEQ said in response to someone asking about fumes you can smell on public sidewalks, “If it is in public space and you have a concern, report it to DEQ.”

(So, we apparently need to have another “action of the week” where people go to the Zenith facility and report to the DEQ that the air quality sucks, because it does.)

If DEQ allows Zenith to continue their operations as is, there has to be some serious hell to pay.

Next steps according to DEQ representative Scott Smith: The Land Use Compatibility Statement decision should come down by August 31 and the next “drill” will take place on October 13 (on a table top).

To be continued…

About Lynn Spitaleri Handlin

Organizing member of Extinction rebellion pdx, founding member of Cascadia Magical Activists, loves doing habitat restoration for fun.


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