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City Denies Zenith Energy Land Use Compatability Request After Intense Pressure from Lawmakers, Environmental Groups

The oil terminal has received a series of blows over the past month to getting its air quality permit— a necessary permit to continue operations.

After weeks of compounding pressure from state lawmakers and county officials, Portland city commissioners on Friday morning denied a request from Zenith Energy that could have aided the embattled crude oil storage company to continue and potentially expand its waterfront terminal.

“The air quality permit, if renewed, would cover aspects of operations of the entire Zenith Energy site that are not compatible with the city’s comprehensive land use plan,” the city’s statement read. “Included in the reasons for denial of the land use compatibility statement are the potential impacts of the facility’s operations on the environment and on historically marginalized groups.”

Zenith Energy has been in a yearslong process to get a handful of permits from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality so it can continue and potentially expand its operations. The oil terminal, located in Northwest Portland, takes in crude oil from trains, stores it in tanks, and then pushes the oil through pipes and onto ships to disperse elsewhere.

A drumbeat of pressure has built around City Hall over the past month to deny Zenith a critical part of its requirements to get a renewed air quality permit from DEQ, which covers all operations and potential expansions.

On Aug. 20, a group of 20 state lawmakers penned a letter to Commissioner Dan Ryan and the Bureau of Development Services—a bureau Ryan oversees—warning of the dangers the terminal poses if a megaquake were to hit the city.

“The catastrophic risks of approving this application cannot be overstated. We recently learned from the city of Portland and Multnomah County’s commissioned inventory of this hub that its aging fuel and oil tanks, including Zenith’s, are at risk of an oil spill on par with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon gulf spill when the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake hits,” the lawmakers wrote.

Four days later, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners similarly denounced the facility.

Portland city commissioners today acknowledged that they anticipate legal challenges to their decision.

“We understand that this may require legal proceedings, and we believe this is a legal fight worth having,” the commissioners wrote.

The Bureau of Development Services says an application for a commercial building permit for renewable fuel facilities at Zenith is still on the table and is likely to be issued in September.

Zenith issued a statement in response to BDS’s decision this morning.

“We are very disappointed in the city’s decision, which is particularly puzzling as we know our plan to transition to a fully renewable energy facility is very much in line with the values and goals reflected in the city of Portland’s 2035 Comprehensive Plan,” said W. Grady Reamer, vice president of U.S. operations west. “Contrary to recent reporting, Zenith is seeking to continue modernizing our terminal, not to increase its capacity. We want to further increase renewable fuels at the expense of fossil fuels.”

A Zenith representative did not immediately respond to WW’s inquiry about whether the company would pursue legal action against BDS’s decision.

Update: Reamer said in a statement that Zenith would be appealing the city’s decision.