Two environmental groups are threatening to sue Zenith Energy over construction work at its oil terminal in Portland.

On Monday, Willamette Riverkeeper and Columbia Riverkeeper filed a notice of intent to sue the company if it doesn’t get a stormwater permit within 60 days.

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The Zenith Energy oil terminal in Northwest Portland receives crude oil from trains, stores it in tanks and sends it through pipes to outgoing ships. The project has generated controversy for expanding its capacity to unload rail cars in spite of a city ordinance prohibiting the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in Portland.

A photo taken in April 2020 of construction equipment and dirt at the Zenith Energy oil terminal in Northwest Portland.

A photo taken in April 2020 of construction equipment and dirt at the Zenith Energy oil terminal in Northwest Portland.

Courtesy of Columbia Riverkeeper

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The company recently proposed upgrading its facility to handle biofuel, but it hasn’t gotten all the permits it needs to start the work.

Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper, said the two Riverkeeper groups have documented land-clearing and grading at the proposed construction site that is not allowed under the Clean Water Act without a construction stormwater permit.

The company applied for a construction stormwater permit from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in June but hasn’t received it yet. The permit requires an additional approval from the City of Portland in the form of a land use compatibility statement, and the city has not yet granted that approval.

“So they realistically initiated construction before they had a permit,” Williams said. “They’re violating the Clean Water Act right now, and that’s why we’re putting our foot down on this.”

Williams said the company will have to stop construction activity and get a stormwater permit within 60 days to avoid a lawsuit. He said his group and others are concerned that the company is planning to expand its fossil fuel operations, though the Zenith maintains its upgrades are all focused on transporting biofuel.

Zenith has sparred with state and city regulators over the safety issues with the crude oil the Portland terminal handles and its proposal to add underground pipes to transport biofuel. The company threatened to sue the city if it didn’t approve a permit for its pipeline project, but it ended up withdrawing that permit application. Zenith declined to comment for this story.

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