Think Out Loud

Report says fuel spills would be massive environmental disaster in Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Aug. 17, 2021 3:45 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Aug. 17

Fuel tanks sit along the river bank in Portland.

Fuel tanks sit along the river bank in Portland.

OPB File Photo


The city of Portland and Multnomah county commissioned a study to learn what damage a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake would do to the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub, a six-mile stretch of fossil fuel storage along the Willamette River. Laura Marshall of ECONorthwest, which co-produced the report, says the release of fuel that would result from the subduction zone earthquake would be a massive environmental disaster. Marshall joins us, along with Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, to give us more details about the potential damages and what might be done to mitigate them.

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Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer

Dave Miller: If you’ve ever driven through the six-mile stretch of Portland’s Industrial Northwest that hugs the Willamette River, you’ve probably seen hundreds and hundreds of large tanks. The area is known as the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub but a more accurate term might be Fossil Fuel Infrastructure Hub because the vast majority of the gas, diesel and jet fuel that’s used in Oregon is either stored in or transferred through this area. The land beneath those tanks may look solid, but really it’s not. It’s expected to liquefy when the Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake hits and that would lead to an environmental disaster of enormous proportions. This is one of the findings of a new report commissioned by Multnomah County and the City of Portland. For more on the report and what should be done about it, I’m joined by Laura Marshall of ECONorthwest which co-produced the study and Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, who is also an emergency room doctor. She pushed for the study to happen in the first place. Laura Marshall first. Can you give us a fuller picture of what exactly the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub in Northwest Portland is?

Laura Marshall: Yeah, definitely. So CEI Hub (Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub) is essentially a fuel storage tank farm. So 90% of Oregon’s liquid fuel supply comes through the CEI Hub. So your gasoline for your car probably came through here. Diesel jet fuel for the Portland Airport. There’s a pipeline in fact that runs from here to the Portland airport. I want to stress, there’s a lot of different fuels here stored on site. There’s 10 companies across 31 properties and about 630 total tanks.

Miller: And just to be clear when you say gasoline or fuel oil or whatever and 90%, so it’s not just for the Portland area but for John Day and La Grande and Medford. It all gets piped there or taken there in trains and then from there it gets trucked all over the state and that’s why this is such a critical hub.

Marshall: Yep, that’s correct. And the reason it all comes through here is one because it is on the river so there are barges that provide access. And there’s also a pipeline that comes all the way down from northern Washington that supplies the fuel that is pumped to the tanks where it’s stored and then distributed out.

Miller: Sharon Meieran, why did you, along with fellow Commissioner Jayapal, want to allocate money for a study about the risks to this area that the big earthquake represents.

Sharon Meieran: Well, first of all, you mentioned this in the introduction, I’ve driven past this area a lot and was always curious about the tanks. They look pretty post-apocalyptic and ominous and early in my first term some of the community members from Linnton, which is where these tanks are, reached out to me. They’ve been sounding the alarm for years and so I looked into the issue and as I became more educated about the CEI Hub and the implications both environmental and on a human level with a natural disaster, it became clear that it’s hard to learn about these issues basically and not want to take action.

Miller: Laura Marshall am I right that to a great extent the studies about the effects of the earthquake on this area in the past have focused more on what the earthquake would mean for the transportation infrastructure itself in terms of getting say gasoline around the state, more on that than on the environmental impacts of the tanks having major structural issues?

Marshall: Well, I’ll actually counter that by saying there aren’t many studies that are done preemptively like this. This is a unique situation where we know we’re at a risk of a huge Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake. And my colleague who works on this, Adam Domanski, actually worked on the Horizon assessing the damages of that and for him it’s been really refreshing to see this being done before an event occurs and potentially of policy solutions to prevent the scale of magnitude that we discussed in the report.

Miller: So let’s turn to that magnitude. In the big picture, what is predicted to happen when the big earthquake hits?

Marshall: Like you said in the intro, the soils that the tanks are located on are generally not solid soil, they’re susceptible to movement. And so when these tanks move, many of which are not up to seismic design standards, our modeling suggests that between 94 million to 194 million gallons of fuel would be released into the air, ground and water immediately during and after the earthquake. This magnitude of releases is on the same level of magnitude as what happened in Deepwater Horizon. That was different because it was in crude oil and the saltwater environment. This is in a highly urban area and would coincide with the devastating earthquake.

Miller: Your report categorized different ages of the tanks putting them into three different age group buckets essentially. Why are those different ages of these tanks important?

Marshall: So it gets to the seismic design standards and I have to give a shout out to our sub-consultants, Hart Crowser, who did that work. But essentially in 1994, the Society of Engineering didn’t have the standards and then in 2004, the City of Portland seismic design standards were updated. So we use the age of the tank as a proxy essentially for the likelihood of failure.

Miller: And the earlier tanks are more likely to fail and it seems like if I remember the numbers correctly, the majority of the tanks are older.

Marshall: Vast majority or were missing information on them and we assumed they were older in those cases. Definitely one of the takeaways from this report is that there is a little bit of a lack of information about what is stored on-site and what it is, how old the tank is. And so that’s something that as a recommendation could be pretty simple to document that more easily so that the fire marshal and others for emergency response have that available.


Miller: Are these companies not currently required to say what is in these tanks that are so close to a vitally important river and human habitation, people?

Marshall: Based on our data collection, there was not one single source. So there, I might let the Commissioner speak to that a little bit, but that does not exist currently.

Miller: Commissioner Meieran, do you know, are these companies required to tell any government agency what is in their tanks?

Meiran: To my knowledge, there is not, which is a huge, huge gap in regulatory efforts and a lot of this is compounded because it is a very fuzzy regulatory picture. There’s federal regulations, state regulation. The city has a lot of authority based on its land use and zoning, another sort of infrastructure authority, but the county, it’s a little fuzzier. But that’s one of the issues that has really been highlighted in this report and which we need to be addressing. We need to all get together and say, okay, what do we need to know and how are we going to allocate responsibility?

Miller: I want to turn to those big questions in just a few minutes, but I want to get a better sense for what the disaster would be, what the scale of would be and for what and for whom? So Laura Marshall, what would this disaster mean for the people who live in the immediate area? As Commissioner Meieran mentioned, Linnton, for example, what would this mean for people who have homes or businesses adjacent?

Marshall: So the Linnton community, to my understanding, has been very aware of the threats that this causes and has been coordinating with the commissioner and for good reason because there’s a very high risk of fire with the releases of fuel. There are many ignition sources like down power lines that would occur from the earthquake as well as these are metal tanks generally. So metal scraping on metal compounds the effects of a fire with the earthquake and the inability of emergency responders potentially to respond in the same way they would in a nonearthquake. There’s people who live right here. Forest Park is right there. And so evacuations would probably be necessary. The road network could be caught in a compromise making that complicated. So I try to stay away from the doom and gloom, but there’s definitely some things that are kind of scary in here.

Miller: Well, I mean, it’s sort of impossible to stay away from doom when there’s a report like this that shows in objective terms what the disaster would mean. It is very literally doom-filled and for understandable reasons, but it’s worth it. You mentioned that the scale of the number of gallons of these different kinds of fossil fuel products is on the order of magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon, but it seems like that that comparison could underplay the extent of the catastrophe because, if I understand correctly, this report doesn’t even take into account other risks like nearby pipeline problems or hazardous materials in the area that are not fossil fuel oils or oil trains, which could be in an area at that time, which could also have major spills. Is it fair to say that the situation is likely to be even worse than your report details?

Marshall: For purposes of our report, we were focused solely on the CEI Hub but this area and lots of the areas on the river and these industrial zones as well as the oil trains, everything you mentioned, the pipelines that extend throughout the area with the Cascadia Subduction Zone are definitely all at risk. I hope that our report can inform policy solutions elsewhere where those might be identified through similar efforts, but I would agree with that assessment.

Miller: Another issue here, in addition to the potential for fires and air quality and destruction of nearby buildings is the river itself and what it would mean for all these different kinds of oil, some of which, if I understand correctly, would evaporate quickly or potentially burn off quickly and others are heavier and are more likely to actually stay in the water for longer. There was an interesting graph in your report that showed the two different time frames for how long it would take for oil to actually get to the mouth of the Columbia as it eventually makes its way into the Columbia and then to the Pacific in winter versus in summer. So that’s a seasonal difference in terms of flow, but in the big picture, what did you find in terms of what this would mean for these massive river systems?

Marshall: Some of it depends on timing. You mentioned the seasonality with the river flow, but also if it’s happening when salmon are coming back, the potential is here for it to wipe out an entire salmon run in a year. Many migratory birds at different times use the sites for nesting as well. So those are some of the environmental considerations. But the earthquake complications are also a big part of the picture here because a containment and recovery absent an earthquake could happen relatively quickly and we wouldn’t expect the materials to go all the way to the Columbia at all because NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and others have plans for this. But the earthquake response and the inability to use roads in the river because of collapsed bridges and roads complicates this tremendously in terms of being able to get there as quickly as necessary for the cleanup and containment to occur.

Miller: In other words, one of the what seems like it could be one of the worst environmental catastrophes in our country’s history, if and when this happens, might not even be either among the top ten concerns of emergency responders or if it is, they may be severely hampered in their ability to actually address it.

Marshall: Overall resources will be spread fairly thin is my understanding and if you look at reports from DOGAMI, the Oregon Department of Geology and Minerals, the time it will take to restore roads and things is up to up to six months in some cases. So, earthquake response will be difficult and this will just make it more complicated and more difficult and more hazardous.

Miller: So Commissioner Meieran, let’s turn to what we do about this report. First of all, who would be on the financial hook off everything that we’ve just been talking about were to come to pass?

Meieran: So that is a great question and we have regularly seen with disasters relating to fossil fuel, transport and infrastructure, the companies responsible just seem to disappear. And that leaves local government and state governments basically taxpayers to foot the bill for billions of dollars of recovery and disaster response. And that is a frightening prospect. And it’s actually what led me to really look into particularly one innovative approach to addressing some of the risk that we can anticipate related to a Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake or other disaster in this area.

Miller: And what’s the mechanism that you’re interested in right now?

Meieran: So it’s the concept of fossil fuel response. And I want to give a shout-out to a group called Center for Sustainable Economy who brought this concept to my attention. It had been doing some research in the area. As local and state jurisdictions face increasing disaster-related costs and climate-related costs relating basically to fossil fuel infrastructure and transport failure, and there’s no clear way to pay for this, the idea is what if we can shift that economic burden back where it belongs on the entities responsible for causing the disasters in the first place, with these known hazardous substances. And so if we can understand not just the scale and scope of the damage potentially caused, but really objectively identifying the costs on a on a real level, we can look at bond practices where we would potentially be able to require operators in the Hub to cover the risks of damage from their products associated with the natural disaster.

Miller: What about requiring that they simply retrofit all of their current infrastructure so that when the earthquake hits, the tanks are much more likely to survive the liquefaction or, or to even show up the ground below the tanks?

Meieran: So that’s an excellent idea. Clearly, we (the global “we” as Multnomah County does not have the authority to do that) need to be able to do things like harden the soil. There are things that we can do to mitigate the risks so we can harden the soil around the tanks. We can upgrade the tanks themselves. However, this is all very, very expensive and has not to date been pursued. And again, as I mentioned, there’s this whole murky regulatory authority question, but when we really do look deeper, it’s not nearly as expensive to employ these mitigating approaches as looking at the truly catastrophic outcomes that can occur if we don’t take action. So we do need to address that. We need to figure out whose authority we are acting under and make some of those decisions.

Miller: And just briefly, Commissioner Meieran, I’m curious how everything we’ve been talking about here affects the way that you think about a decision that we’re waiting for from Portland’s Bureau of Development Services. That office is considering right now whether or not to grant approval to Zenith energy to increase the company’s operations in Portland which includes transporting tar sands crude oil through the city. This again is not a county decision but you’ve been thinking a lot about fossil fuel infrastructure and safety. What do you think about this decision facing the city?

Meieran: I will speak for myself and point out what the Board explicitly stated in a Resolution that we passed in 2019. So we explicitly said in our Resolution that we were also looking at what we can do in terms of potentially addressing the CEI Hub disaster. We explicitly said our Board is opposed to new fossil fuel infrastructure, including trains, including other infrastructure and Zenith definitely fits in this category. So we’re kind of on the record saying this and I personally am on the record saying that I believe we need to do everything in our power to prevent Zenith from being able to go through our region. And since we’re not the deciding jurisdiction and I know that I do not have all of the details or know all the legal ins and outs, I would have to find out from the City what those kinds of considerations are. But I am absolutely opposed to permitting and allowing Zenith to continue to go through.

Miller: Sharon Meieran and Laura Marshall, thanks very much for joining us today.

Meieran: Thank you so much for highlighting this. And can I raise one other thing? OPB did a great piece on this in 2015 called Unprepared and I would encourage everyone to go watch that.

Miller: I’ll allow the interjection. Sharon Meieran and Laura Marshall. Thanks very much. Sharon Meieran is a Multnomah County commissioner and Laura Marshall is an economist with ECONorthwest and the project manager for this new report about the oil and gas hub, which is in Northwest Portland.