“Zenith 5” Defendants Jan Zuckerman and Margaret Butler: Remarks at Zenith

[This “braided” speech was given at the “Doom or Bloom” action at the gates of Zenith Energy transshipment facility in Portland, Oregon on June 4, 2022. – Ed.]


Thank you all for coming out today, to the “Doom or Bloom” action at Zenith on this rainy afternoon, the day after the anniversary of the oil train derailment and explosion in Mosier. By showing up you make it clear that our community, like their community, does not choose doom, we choose BLOOM – we choose a future that does not include Zenith Energy.

The Willamette, a short distance from here, was once a braided river, with many woven channels, not the one channel that we see today. It shaped this flood plain, a place of connections, a myriad of streams, and lakes feeding into clean water, creating fertile soil, a busy bustling life affirming ecosystem. Turn the clock forward and we find ourselves here, standing on Guild’s Lake, now filled in with soil blasted from the west hills and silt dredged from the river, to create the unstable foundation for what is now the Industrial Sanctuary, better known as the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub, where Zenith sits, displacing and poisoning nonhuman and human communities.

Zenith’s shiny new infrastructure is deceiving. The tanks where they store their oil were built in 1957, when Chevron used this facility for mostly asphalt.  After many different owners, and numerous spills and toxic releases, that didn’t stop the DEQ from giving owner Arc Logistics a permit to expand the terminal’s rail unloading capacity, moving dangerous crude oil through our neighborhoods. 

Community members, many of whom are here today, protested and blocked trains to try to stop owner Arc Logistics from operating at higher levels than their permit allowed.  In 2017, when Zenith Energy bought the facility, they continued this legacy, quadrupling its rail unloading capacity, and transporting, by rail, Tar Sands and other crude oil from Canada and the Bakken fields in North Dakota, for shipment to Asia and other ports. 

Zenith managed to expand an oil by rail export market in Portland by skirting around public processes and using permits that expired over a decade ago, to pollute and endanger our communities. The City of Portland’s Fossil Fuel Terminal Zoning Amendments passed in 2016, preventing any new bulk fossil fuel storage terminals from being built, could not stop them.  

Not only that, but Zenith has also continually lied about the kind of crude oil it is handling and exporting, has avoided requirements to conduct a spill preparedness exercise, lied about the amount of oil its new rail racks would unload, and has violated the Clean Water Act. 

And they’ve gotten away with it…until now.  After massive public uproar and a multitude of tactics, including XRPDX’s garden on the tracks, the City finally found the courage to say no.

Because our city’s 2035 Comprehensive Plan has goals and policies to protect the health and safety of our communities, especially marginalized communities who have been sacrificed for far too long, and because of the will of the people, the City finally denied Zenith its Land Use Compatibility Statement which it needed to renew its DEQ Title 5 air pollution permit to continue operating. This happened on August 27, 2021.

So how in the hell is Zenith still operating?  It is because Zenith’s lawyers from Stoel Rives know that if they appeal the City’s denial of its Land Use Compatibility Statement,  Zenith has the legal right to continue business as usual.  So, first they appealed to the Land Use Board of Appeals and lost.  When they didn’t get their way, they took their case to the Oregon Court of Appeals and lost again. They have a few weeks to appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court, and they will continue to stall and stall and stall and keep operating, until we shut them down.


After hearing that history, many of you may be wondering why we are not sitting on tracks today.  Two weeks ago, when the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in support of the City, we made a strategic decision that we would come in numbers today, with art, music and theater, and, from the sidewalk here, tell Zenith to Cease and Desist, and that we will come back and come back again and again with other more fun actions if their response is to continue to operate.

 When I retired from 40 years in the labor movement in 2017, I decided to focus my activist energy on climate, so I’m a late-comer in many ways. I have so much respect for all the work that you have done over the years. In late 2018 I heard about the Extinction Rebellion movement, and I felt the same way about XR that I did about my old organization, Jobs with Justice—that I wanted to do that. I think that building a mass movement doing direct action is key to stopping the worst impacts of the climate crisis.  

In February of 2019 the story about Zenith broke on OPB and in the Oregonian.  Like many others, I was outraged and cut out the news article and was looking for a way to work on Zenith.  I connected with XRPDX and at that first meeting–there was Jan, whom I knew from college and Sunnyside Environmental School and  there was a map of Zenith on the white board.  I was in the right place! The next XRPDX meeting I went to, in March, Ken Ward outlined the idea of building the garden

On Easter Sunday morning 2019, at 6 am, we brought a dump truck of soil and a tiny house and built the garden, thanks to Mike and Harlan and Dan and others.  We were there from 6 am Sunday to 4 pm on Monday, when we were arrested. The rail line was shut down for two days. Seven days later, a bunch of us went back and did it a second time.  This time we were arrested about three hours after we got there. Seven of us were arrested twice and five of the seven decided to plead not-guilty to one of the counts of criminal trespass.  

With awesome legal support from the Civil Liberties Defense Center and the National Lawyers’ Guild, we were able to present a full necessity defense, including expert testimony from a climate scientist. The courtroom was packed and the testimony was compelling.  Despite video evidence of us trespassing on Zenith’s property, we convinced 5 out of the 6 jurors to vote to acquit us. It was a legal milestone in terms of use of the necessity defense in climate cases and the case against us was dropped. 

As Jan said, Zenith is the poster child for what’s wrong with our whole system.  That they could use an old permit to expand operations in violation of the city’s policies means the system is broken. Here it is, 2 years after we built our garden, and Zenith does not have an air quality permit and yet it’s operating still. 

And there’s the bigger safety issue: Zenith ignores the recent earthquake report spelling out a disaster on the scale of Deep Water Horizon in terms of spills and an inferno much like Fukushima, threatening Forest Park and nearby communities. The report went through every tank in every facility in the CEI hub–and Zenith was the only company not reporting to DEQ what was in their tanks. They ignore the climate crisis and historical and continued harm on already impacted communities and wildlife.  

Zenith is going to say that they are part of the solution, that they are, or will be, moving into biofuels.  We have been watching the trains and the overwhelming majority of train cars coming through the Zenith yard in the last couple of months are carrying crude oil.  Then there are different kinds of biofuels and some are very carbon-intensive.  Many biofuel efforts are really just a form of greenwashing. That’s why we are encouraging the City to create a comprehensive biofuel policy. 


Margaret is right, Zenith will claim to be part of the solution, but it is actually part of a larger problem. In the words of Sarah Taylor, from the Braided River Campaign, “Vanport was flooded with water, the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub was flooded with oil.”  This is because our land use laws prioritize and protect heavy industry, like Zenith, above all else.

In court, Stoel Rives has argued that zoning policy should trump our Comprehensive Plan and our city still has to prove that it doesn’t, before they can stop Zenith’s oil transport.

If giant fossil fuel corporations using dozens of acres for their industry, providing few jobs, are not what we want on our river,  then we must demand that the zoning laws change so we can begin the work of co-creating a green working waterfront that doesn’t kill us.


This means we must flood our city with our voices and when our voices aren’t heard, then we must flood the streets and the tracks with our bodies until Zenith Energy leaves our city and our land use policies are changed.  


About Margaret Butler

Margaret Butler was born and raised in Portland and spent 40 years in the labor movement. Upon retirement, she embraced climate justice activism with Climate Jobs PDX and XRPDX.


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Adah Crandall’s Speech at Zenith