Zenith Oil-by-Rail

Since 2017, we have joined with community members and nonprofits to fight the Zenith oil-by-rail terminal in Portland, OR. After promising to ditch crude oil, Zenith intends to expand its Portland, OR, terminal while continuing to handle fossil fuels.

The Problem

Oil-by-rail is bad for public health and safety, our climate, and clean water. Zenith Energy’s Portland Terminal is a former asphalt facility that became a fossil fuel transloading facility in 2013. The 39-acre site has 84 tanks with a total storage capacity of over 1.5 million barrels. In 2017, Zenith quietly started receiving tar sands and crude oil on mile-long trains from Canada and North Dakota. Most, if not all, of the product Zenith handles is destined for other places in the U.S.—it’s not used here in Oregon. 

Oil trains are incredibly dangerous. The oil inside the railcars is highly pressurized; derailments are not uncommon, and when they happen, there is a very high risk that one or more of the railcars could explode.

How We Engage

For years, Columbia Riverkeeper’s team of grassroots community organizers and attorneys worked with community partners to advocate for an end to Zenith’s dangerous oil-by-rail operations. Case-in-point: Riverkeeper’s attorneys and partners advocated for the City of Portland to exercise an obscure authority to stop Zenith’s oil-by-rail operations. We also partnered with Willamette Riverkeeper to sue Zenith for violating the Clean Water Act, a lawsuit we settled on favorable terms. We are closer than ever to stopping dangerous oil trains from threatening people and clean water—and we won’t stop until Zenith is no longer a danger.

Frequently Asked Questions: Zenith Energy

What is Zenith Energy?

Zenith’s facility, located at 5501 NW Front Ave., has operated as a petroleum products storage terminal since 1947, originally as Willbridge Asphalt Refinery. The 39-acre site has 84 tanks with a total storage capacity of 1,518,200 barrels. The asphalt refinery ceased operations in November 2006 and was officially closed in December 2008. Around 2013, Zenith’s predecessor, Arc Logistics, started using the facility to refine crude oil. Zenith took over in December 2017 and within one month was importing tar sands and crude oil to the Portland Terminal on mile-long trains from Canada and North Dakota.

What is the current status of Zenith?

In January 2021, DEQ notified Zenith that the company’s recent expansion project and the associated increase in throughput at the facility triggered the need for the company to obtain a new Land Use Compatibility Statement (LUCS) from the City. The LUCS process gave the City the opportunity to evaluate Zenith’s operations against the City’s 2035 Comprehensive Plan, which includes numerous goals and policies aimed at protecting the health and safety of City residents. 

On August 27, 2021, the City of Portland denied Zenith’s application for a LUCS, declaring that the potential adverse impact of Zenith’s oil-by-rail facility on the environment and historically marginalized communities is not compatible with the City’s Comprehensive Plan policies.  

The City’s decision came just weeks after the release of a new draft study highlighting the significant risks associated with storing large quantities of fossil fuels in Portland’s Critical Energy Infrastructure (CEI) Hub. The study noted that tanks in the CEI Hub that were constructed before 1990 are likely to spill 50 to 100 percent of their contents during a major seismic event—all of Zenith’s tanks fall into this category. 

The City’s decision to deny the LUCS was a big deal: Without a LUCS, Zenith’s application to the Oregon Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for a renewed Title V air pollution permit is incomplete. 

Zenith appealed the LUCS denial to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals and lost. Zenith then appealed that decision to the Oregon Court of Appeals and lost again. Finally, Zenith appealed the decision to the Oregon Supreme Court. Unfortunately, days before the Supreme Court chose not to hear the appeal, the City of Portland—without any public input—quickly and quietly approved a third LUCs for Zenith Energy, approving five more years of dangerous oil operations in exchange for a promise to switch to “renewable” fuels in five years.

What is next?

We are partnering with other local organizations and community members to demand the City reconsider the approval of the third LUCS to take public input on the decision. In the meantime, Zenith has applied for an Air Contaminant Discharge Permit (ACDP) with DEQ. This permit process will include a public comment period, so we need all hands on deck to make sure Zenith is not allowed to continue putting our communities and our planet at risk.

Timeline of Events:

  • December 2017: Zenith takes over and begins transporting crude oil and tar sands by rail
  • Mid-late 2018: Zenith increases rail unloading rack capacity (four-fold) resulting in increased throughput (oil moving through the facility) in following years
  • October 2019: City of Portland denies Zenith’s request to build three pipes beneath Front Ave.
  • January 2020: Columbia Riverkeeper and WIllamette Riverkeeper file a Notice of Intent to sue Zenith for violation of its Construction Stormwater permit
  • May 2020: Zenith withdrawals request to build three pipes above Front Ave.
  • January 2021: Oregon DEQ requires a new LUCs for Zenith operations
  • August 2021: Zenith settles for violation of its Stormwater Construction permit and agrees to pay  $115,000 to Audubon Society 
  • August 2021: City of Portland denies Zenith’s request for LUCs
  • August 2021: Zenith appeals the denial of the LUCs to Land Use Board of Appeals
  • September 2021: Oregon DEQ proposes denial of Zenith’s Title V air permit
  • October 2021: Zenith appeals DEQ’s proposed denial of the Title V air permit
  • February 2022: Land Use Board of Appeals finds in favor of the City having the authority to deny the LUCS
  • February 2022: Zenith appeals the Land Use Board of Appeals decision (on the LUCs) to the Oregon Court of Appeals
  • May 2022: The Oregon Court of Appeals affirms the decision from LUBA giving the City of Portland authority to use its comprehensive plan to deny Zenith’s request for a LUCS
  • June 2022: Zenith appeals the Oregon Court of Appeals decision to the Oregon Supreme Court
  • September 2022: Zenith applies for a third LUCS, while the first LUCS remains pending at the Oregon Supreme Court
  • October 3, 2022: City of Portland quietly approves Zenith’s third request for a LUCS, paving the way for Zenith to continue transporting crude oil for another five years before transitioning to “renewable” fuels.
  • October 6, 2022: The Oregon Supreme Court denies Zenith’s appeal of the City’s denial of the original LUCS
  • November 1, 2022: Twenty environmental justice and community groups send a letter to the City of Portland demanding a reconsideration of the LUCS approval and requiring public input on the decision
  • November 21, 2022: The Bureau of Development Services sent a response to the November 1 letter, kicking the can down the road to DEQ.
  • What’s Next?: Shutting down Zenith and stopping dangerous oil trains! Stay tuned for information on the comment period for Zenith’s air permit from DEQ.

Watch “The Fight Against Fossil Fuels: What’s Happening and What’s Next”

Recorded webinar from January 14, 2021. Learn the latest on fracked gas and oil development proposals along the Columbia—and how we’re fighting to protect the river and our climate. Interested in learning more about Columbia Riverkeeper’s efforts to stop dirty fossil fuels? Join a conversation with our conservation director, Dan Serres, and staff attorney, Erin Saylor, as they discuss the status of our current work to protect the Columbia River from fossil fuel infrastructure like pipelines and refineries. Topics covered will include the Kalama methanol refinery, Zenith Energy, Port Westward, the Perennial fracked gas power plant, and others.

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