Construction continues at the Zenith Terminals site in Northwest Portland in early February, 2019.

Construction continues at the Zenith Terminals site in Northwest Portland in early February, 2019.

Tony Schick/OPB

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has sent a warning letter flagging violations at the Zenith Energy oil terminal in Portland.

The company moves crude oil from rail cars to storage tanks and outbound ships in Portland’s northwest industrial district. The facility has drawn fierce opposition from environmental groups and the company has been criticized for hiding its plans to offload and ship diluted bitumen, a form of crude oil that comes from tar sands in Canada and is more complicated and expensive to clean up after a spill.

According to a warning letter sent earlier this month, oil spill prevention officials with DEQ recently found several of the company’s storage tanks haven’t been inspected in more than five years, putting the facility behind schedule under the industry standard Zenith agreed to follow to comply with state law. 

Tank cars on the train tracks outside of the Zenith Energy oil terminal in Portland also contain a placard warning of toxic inhalation.

Tank cars on the train tracks outside of the Zenith Energy oil terminal in Portland also contain a placard warning of toxic inhalation.

Tony Schick/OPB

“Failure to conduct regular testing of tanks and associated piping can increase the probability of spills that may have been preventable,” the letter states. “DEQ is concerned that additional tanks may be out of compliance with their inspection schedule including several tanks which are long overdue for inspection but not listed as out of service.” 

Officials also found the person the company appointed to be in charge of its oil spill response plan lives about four hours away.

“A lot happens in the first couple hours of a spill,” said Scott Smith, the DEQ emergency response planner who wrote the warning letter. “We need to have someone at the facility who’s going to be local and say this is exactly what’s going on. We need those eyes in the field.”

Smith said the violations aren’t egregious, but they will need be fixed under state law.

“What I’m pushing for is for them to designate someone who’s on scene to be an initial first responder,” Smith said.

Zenith has 30 days to submit a plan for corrective action. The company hasn’t yet responded to a request for comment.

About 400 people packed a conference center at the University of Portland Monday evening to figure out ways to block work at the Zenith Energy oil terminal.

About 400 people packed a conference center at the University of Portland Monday evening to figure out ways to block work at the Zenith Energy oil terminal.

Kristian Foden-Vencil/OPB

In a written sheet of frequently asked questions sent earlier this month, Zenith spokeswoman Megan Mastal said the company has applied for a permit to install new pipelines at its Portland facility to handle “green energy fuels,” including renewable diesel, biofuel and ethanol. 

Records show the company also plans to use the pipes to transport “a liquid intermediate” called methylene diphenyl diisocyanate, or MDI.

City officials say they have discussed the company’s plans but have not yet received a permit application.

City leaders, including Mayor Ted Wheeler, have expressed a strong aversion to allowing the facility to ship more fossil fuels, but it’s unclear how much power they have over its operations.

A recent memo outlines some of the ideas city leaders are considering, including a ban on the storage of fossil fuels.