The city of Portland has removed two potential barriers for expanding a controversial Northwest Portland oil terminal.

Portland’s Bureau of Developmental Services Friday approved a certificate of occupancy, which Zenith Energy first applied for in 2014 for its Northwest Portland oil terminal. That will allow the company to move ahead on plans to operate three railcar platforms. The bureau also determined that the expansion is allowed under Portland’s comprehensive plan.

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The expansion of Zenith Energy’s operations has drawn sharp criticism from environmental and climate action groups since 2019, when it was found to be expanding its facilities to increase the movement of oil by rail from Canada to Portland to be transferred onto ships.

City spokesman Ken Ray said Zenith made significant safety upgrades to the existing railcar access platforms — among them, a fire suppression system and a spill control containment system.

“This project does not expand the capacity of existing storage tanks at the facility,” he said.

A long train with round oil cars can be seen on the far side of a cinderblock fence topped by barbed wire.

Oil cars line up for unloading at the Zenith Energy oil terminal in Portland's northwest industrial area.

Cassandra Profita / OPB

Opponents have keyed in on Portland’s 2016 City Council vote opposing new fossil fuel facilities within the city. But Ray said that vote did not bar the city of Portland from considering Zenith’s permit application.

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“This permit was applied for under old rules in 2014,” he said, adding that Zenith’s railcar access platforms “can be used for the transfer of fossil fuels tanks allowed under city code that was in effect at the time the permit was applied for.”

The city’s approval comes with some conditions, Ray said. Zenith must use the new infrastructure exclusively for renewable fuels and non-fuel products and is prohibited from using it for fossil fuels.

Columbia Riverkeeper has been working with other environmental groups to stop Zenith from transporting fossil fuels. It joined with Willamette Riverkeeper to file a lawsuit in January against the company over its construction work.

Staff attorney Erin Saylor said her group is disappointed by the city’s decision to issue permits and hoped for a more public decision-making process.

“It’s tricky. I think we had a lot of the same feelings that the city did where if this is really, truly for biofuels that’s great, we want to see more biofuel use,” she said. “But at the same time, we want to see their use of crude oil and their throughput of crude oil decrease.”

Saylor said their concern has always been the potential increase of transporting crude oil, and with new infrastructure dedicated for biofuels, that could potentially free up space to handle more crude oil.

The city’s action will now be reviewed by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to determine whether or not to approve two other permits: a stormwater general permit and an air quality permit.

DEQ spokesperson Lauren Wirtis said there is no definitive timeline for these permits but they will require a public process.

A spokesman from Zenith Energy said the company declines to comment.

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