Mega earthquake could cause catastrophic fuel leak on Willamette River in Portland, study says

By Alex Hasenstab (OPB)
Aug. 18, 2021 1:49 p.m.

If you’ve ever driven through the six-mile stretch of Portland’s industrial Northwest on the west bank of the Willamette River, you’ve probably seen hundreds of large tanks. The area is known as the Critical Energy Infrastructure hub. The vast majority of gas, diesel and jet fuel used in Oregon is either stored in or transferred through this area. The land beneath those tanks may look solid, but experts say it’s not. The ground is 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. Laura Marshall of Eco Northwest, which co-produced the study, spoke about the results with Dave Miller on OPB’s Think Out Loud.

“The critical energy infrastructure hub is essentially a fuel storage tank farm, so 90% of Oregon’s liquid fuel supply comes through the C.E.I.,” Marshall explained. “Your gasoline for your car probably came through there.”


There are different types of fuels coming from 10 companies that are stored at the site. About 630 total tanks are used to contain the fuel that is used across the state.

“And the reason it all comes through here is one because it is on the river,” Marshall said. “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,”

County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, who is also an emergency room doctor, pushed for the study to happen in the first place

“I’ve driven past this area a lot and was always curious about the tanks,” Meieran said. “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.”

After years of public concern, the study was commissioned in 2020 after concerns about what a large and anticipated earthquake along the Cascadia Subduction zone would do to the tanks.

“There aren’t many studies that are done preemptively like this,” Marshall said. “This is a unique situation where we know we’re at a risk of a huge Cascadia Subduction zone earthquake.”

It’s unknown how old many of the tanks are. However, a number were built prior to the mid-90s. Before 2004 seismic standards were less strict than they are now.

“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,” Marshall said.

The people and businesses in the Linnton neighborhood of Portland would face the immediate effects of this disaster. It’s something people in the area have been aware of according to Marshall.

“There’s a very high risk of fire with the releases of fuel. There are many ignition sources like downed power lines that would occur from the earthquake as well as these are metal tanks generally, so metal scraping on metal. Compounding the effects of a fire with the earthquake, is the inability of emergency responders potentially to respond in the same way they would in a non-earthquake. "


Marshall described the hypothetical fuel leak as catastrophic. Some of the fuels would go into the air, some of the heavier fuels would go into the Willamette River.

“There’s potential here for it to wipe out an entire salmon run in a year,” Marshall said. “Many migratory birds at different times uses for nesting sites as well. So those are some of the environmental considerations.”

Unlike other catastrophic oil spills, this spill would coincide with an earthquake, creating an obstacle for environmental clean-up.

“The earthquake response and the inability to use roads near the river because of collapsed bridges and roads complicates tremendously in terms of being able to get there as quickly as necessary for the cleanup and containment to occur,” Marshall said.

This raises the question: Who would be responsible in the case of this disastrous event? Meieran said it’s unclear.

“A lot of this is compounded because it is a very fuzzy regulatory picture. There’s, you know, federal regulations, state regulation. The city has a lot of authority based on its land use and zoning, another sort of infrastructure authority, but you know, 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, who’s gonna, what do we need to know and how are we going to allocate responsibility?”

There’s also the question of who would be financially responsible.

“We have regularly seen with disasters relating to fossil fuel, transport and infrastructure, the companies responsible just seem to disappear, Meieran said. “And that leaves local government and state governments basically taxpayers to foot the bill for billions of dollars of uh of recovery and disaster response.”

That is a frightening prospect for Meieran. As local and state jurisdictions face increasing disaster-related costs relating to fossil fuel infrastructure and transport failure, she says there is no clear way to pay for this. Meieran says the goal is to shift the economic burden to the entity responsible for causing the disasters in the first place.

“If we can understand the, not just the scale and scope of the damage potentially caused, but the really objectively identifying the costs 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,” Meieran said.

Multnomah County does not have regulatory authority over the CEI hub. So while Meieran agrees retrofitting the current infrastructure would be the ideal defense against disaster, the county can’t make that happen.

“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,” Meieran said. “So we do need to, to address that. We need to figure out whose authority we’re acting under, and make some of those decisions.”

While many of the tanks were built decades ago, new fossil fuel projects are still being proposed in the county. Portland’s Bureau of Development Services is considering whether to grant approval to Zenith energy to increase the company’s operations in Portland which includes transporting tar sands crude oil through the city. But with the recent focus on fossil fuel infrastructure and safety, Meieran says the county won’t be on board.

“We explicitly said our board is opposed to new fossil fuel infrastructure including trains including other infrastructure and zenith definitely fits in this category,” Meieran said.