Review of Once a Braided River by Barbara Bernstein and Atomic Bamboozle by Jan Haaken

These two important documentaries, although different, are very connected in their opposition to industries that do not care about the health of the people or planet we live on.

Once a Braided River by Barbara Bernstein is essentially a documentary about the dark side of capitalism that takes place along the north reach of the Willamette River in North Portland where the residents were marginalized and the environment decimated.  The documentary traces the history of development and devastation along the reach and the struggle of communities and environmental groups, against the power of industry and government, to make the area a “green working waterfront with good jobs, clean energy and a healthy ecosystem”.

Prior to industrialization the north reach of the Willamette River was a braided river with shallow channels and islands and with high biological diversity.  Many bands of indigenous tribes lived, traveled, hunted and fished in the area and respected the land. They include the Multnomah, Clackamas, Nez Perce and Yakima.  Over time European settlers transformed this reach.  Channels were filled or dredged, wetlands filled in and banks hardened to create a very controlled river.  Industries came in and regarded the river and its floodplain as a dumping ground for wastes creating an extensive superfund site about 10 miles in length.  Today the area is considered an industrial sanctuary and sacrifice zone by the city.  Linnton, located along Highway 30, was once a vibrant and diverse community until it was annexed by the city and industrialized.  Oil trains and pipelines run through the town creating a very hazardous condition for the residents that still live there.  To add insult to injury, they have no beach access and the land owners refuse to allow it.

A major part of the reach is the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub.  The  tanks in the Hub store 90% of the fossil fuel used in Oregon totaling about 300 million gallons.  The highly explosive and toxic fuels are stored in old tanks, many of which are not built to earthquake specifications. The soils below the tank farms will liquify during a subduction zone or local earthquake.  That plus strong ground shaking will compromise the tanks and associated pipelines spilling their contents onto the ground and into the Willamette River creating an ecological nightmare.

Clean up is complicated due to the large number of stakeholders and the reach has become highly politicized.  It has taken 20 years to develop a clean up plan due to industry stonewalling.  Now that there is a plan there is hope that clean up will happen in the next few years.  The commitment and tenacity of the community to create an alternative plan for the north reach, against seemingly long odds, is inspiring.

Another and even darker side to capitalism is the efforts by the nuclear industry to arise from the dead with their supposedly cleaner and less costly nuclear power plants called Small Modular Nuclear Nuclear Reactors (SMNRs). These lies are debunked in the Atomic Bamboozle, a Jan Haaken documentary about the history of the nuclear power industry in Oregon and Washington.  The Hanford site in Washington, originally built to produce plutonium for bombs, is still contaminated and leaking radioactive material into the groundwater and Columbia River.  How much? The industry is not saying. In 1980 the state of Oregon approved a ballot measure that prohibited new construction and operation of nuclear power generating plants statewide until an adequate location for storage of the wastes has been designated.  But the industry is persistent and in the 2017, 2019 and 2021 legislative sessions they have tried to get the legislature to repeal the entire ballot measure or exempt SMNRs but without success and in 2023 three bills have been introduced to do the same thing.  Our only nuclear power plant (Trojan) was shut down permanently in 1993 due to public pressure and cracks in the steam generator tubes.  We need to continually say no to nuclear power.

In conclusion, capitalism is an economic and political system that is an existential threat to the survival of humans and the earth’s ecosystems.  Profit is capitalism’s only reason for existence and damn the public or nature that complains or gets in its way.  Most importantly, other economic and political systems exist, or are yet to be developed, that would be much better for the long term health of people and the planet.  We do not have to accept capitalism as the only game in town.  I highly recommend watching both documentaries and actively oppose capitalism no matter where it rears its ugly head and say yes to a more sustainable and equitable world.

No LUCS for Zenith: Public Testimony to Council

[Harlan Shober and annie capestany testified to the Portland City Council on February 8, 2023.]

Harlan’s testimony:

Hello, Mayor Wheeler and Council members. My name is Harlan Shober.

I was in this room when City Council voted to ban expanding fossil fuel infrastructure. Then I watched Zenith expand its capacity many times over – all without proper permits. Last year when they needed a Land Use Compatibility Statement, you recognized that their operations don’t fit with Portland’s plan, and you denied the LUCS. Zenith appealed, but they lost at every legal turn.

Then, in what to many of us felt like a sneaky move, you snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and granted Zenith a LUCS based on their promise to convert to renewables in five years. Why? Regular citizens have to conclude that your real loyalties belong to big business. All the testimony from neighborhood associations, social justice groups, congregations, and climate organizations counts for nothing. It looks like your real marching orders come from the Portland Business Alliance and Zenith’s lawyers at Stoel Rives.

You say that issuing a LUCS is a standard administrative function and that you’re not required to involve the public. But that’s disingenuous at best. There was a pattern of consultation and the expectation of an open process. You showed further bad faith on January 17th at the scheduled meeting with Commissioner Ryan. Our group, strictly limited to four people, was confronted by more than 10 city employees. Time was arbitrarily limited to 30 minutes. Our questions weren’t answered. Stop trying to outmaneuver the public. You’re supposed to work for us, not against us.

The stakes are high. From Lac-Megantic to Mosier to the unfolding disaster in Ohio we know that rail tank cars derail and explode. Our own CEI Hub Seismic Risk Analysis is unequivocal. Fuel storage along the Willamette is a catastrophe spring-loaded and waiting to happen. We know that when profits come from weapons, tobacco, oxycodone and petroleum, corporations cannot do other than drive all of us over the cliff – if we let them. Don’t let them. Stop caving into the big money. Partner with your constituents. Rescind the LUCS.

We have cardboard gavels to present to the council, with messages written on them. These gavels also represent oil train cars because the council is erroneously relinquishing their power to the fossil fuel companies, instead of recognizing that the power lies in the people’s hands.


annie’s testimony:

Good morning, thank you for the opportunity to speak today. I am annie capestany of SE Portland (speaking in place of Lynn Handlin). I use the pronouns she/her. I am a member of Extinction Rebellion, 350PDX and the Scrub the Hub coalition.

I will get right to the point: the City must rescind the LUCS (Land Use Compatibility Statement) that was erroneously granted to Zenith Energy in October by Commissioner Dan Ryan. We must clean up the mess he made before Zenith makes a dangerous, deadly mess of our Willamette River.

In addition to rescinding the LUCS, the Scrub the Hub coalition has two other demands:

1) the city should immediately schedule a public hearing about the LUCS and give Portlanders the opportunity to share their opinions on Zenith’s operations. A decision of such importance should have ample public input;


2) this is directed to Commissioner Rubio: you are now overseeing the Bureau of Development Services. You have been a climate champion in the past and we look forward to working with you to shut Zenith down. Our coalition has requested a meeting with you, and we have not gotten a response. We have sent our questions via email, but we have not gotten answers. We had a brief meeting with Dan Ryan in January with a surprise appearance by you, but the meeting was dominated by condescending lectures from staff members and then was unexpectedly cut short. We still have no answers.

When we get a proper meeting with you, Commissioner Rubio, we will have many questions. And they all deserve answers. Here is a small sample:                           

• Given impending earthquakes and possible derailments, how do renewable fuels address the dangers spelled out in the CEI HUB seismic risk analysis? Don’t renewables still burn, spill, pollute and kill? 

• The city’s Comprehensive Plan has explicit language regarding community involvement, stating that the city works as a “genuine partner with all Portland communities and interests, providing meaningful opportunities to participate in and influence all stages of planning and decision-making.” Knowing that tens of thousands of people have expressed their concerns about Zenith, why did you make a back door deal with Zenith, betraying our trust and violating the Comprehensive Plan? 

• How do the benefits outweigh the dangers of Zenith’s exports for the next five years?

• What evidence do you have that Zenith is and will be in compliance with the Comprehensive Plan?                                                                               

The Scrub the Hub coalition is here today to make sure Portlanders’ worries concerning Zenith’s dangers get the attention they deserve. We are here because we refuse to be ignored. We are here to tell City Council that it doesn’t matter who holds the gavel, the real power is with the people: the voters, the taxpayers, the workers, the protesters, the old, the young. Black. White. Indigenous. The power is in the people’s hands. Please stop banging your gavel and listen to the people.

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