If oil is moving through Oregon, it’s Michael Zollitsch’s job to know about it. He oversees the state’s emergency responses to oil spills and other environmental disasters.
But last March, when Bloomberg News reported oil from Canada’s tar sands was rolling through Zenith Energy’s storage facility in Northwest Portland on its way to Asia, it caught him by surprise.
"News to me!!" he wrote to his staff at Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality, and to Richard Franklin, a regional spill coordinator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Me, too!” Franklin wrote back.
It wasn't the first time oil spill regulators were in the dark about oil shipments through Oregon, and it wouldn't be the last.
Documents obtained by OPB under Oregon’s public records law show regulators struggled for months to get straight answers about what kind of oil was moving on trains — dubbed “rolling pipelines” by their critics — through Portland and when.
State officials resorted to tracking ships along the Columbia River and guessing how much oil they might be loading based on the amount of ballast water on board — a far cry from the 24-hour notice Washington facilities send regulators for all oil-by-rail shipments.
When DEQ did learn the chemical makeup of that oil, according to the documents, they discovered a potential risk of toxic inhalation for workers and neighbors of the facility: The oil contains enough hydrogen sulfide that the safety data sheets for the product call for spill responders to wear not just masks but fully supplied air, similar to a scuba tank.
Megan Mastal, a public relations representative for Zenith, which operates 24 facilities in the U.S. and internationally, said in an emailed statement that the company has been up front with regulators and that the oil it handles does not pose any additional hazards.
“Our customers trust us with safe and efficient storage of their critical product,” Mastal said. “Zenith provides services to some of the largest companies in the world and has passed their vigorous inspection and vetting requirements. We are proud of our employees and their dedication to our safety-first culture.”
For six years oil trains have been rolling through Oregon — including one in 2016 that derailed and exploded in the Columbia River Gorge. And yet, the government workers charged with preventing and cleaning up oil spills in Oregon remain as in the dark as ever about many of these shipments. That’s largely because of successful industry lobbying efforts and the reluctance of Oregon’s legislature to pass rules already enacted in neighboring states.
While lawmakers have passed bans on offshore oil drilling and fracking — both unlikely prospects in Oregon — they have done relatively little to regulate the real and present danger that oil could spill from trains rumbling through the state.
For the fourth session in a row, the Oregon Legislature is now considering new rules for oil trains. House Bill 2209 would require DEQ oversight of railroad oil spill planning and assesses fees on railroads to help pay for the state's work.
Already this session, lawmakers have introduced two bills that would match the stronger requirements in Washington — and let them die without so much as a public hearing. Now, with the session in its 12th week, lawmakers are advancing a less restrictive proposal, House Bill 2209, which was developed in collaboration with Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway, among others.
Related: Petroleum Terminal Expands To Allow More Oil Trains Into Portland
This comes as oil-by-rail shipments out of Canada’s oil sands have been on the rise. Existing businesses in Oregon have quietly shifted operations to handle more of it, even as plans for brand new fossil fuel projects have been rejected up and down the Northwest.
With the loosest rules on the West Coast, environmentalists fear Oregon has become the path of least resistance for an oil that sinks in water and, they say, could devastate iconic fisheries and waterways.
On the Columbia River, a company known as Global Partners LP successfully changed its port lease to allow for heavy crude at its Clatskanie, Oregon, facility. That facility was originally built as a bio-refinery in 2009 with $36 million in green energy loans and tax tax credits from the state.
And on the Willamette River, an oil terminal owned by Zenith Energy in Northwest Portland is under construction to nearly quadruple railcar loading capacity at what used to be an asphalt plant.
“This is really troubling, to see that Oregon’s environmental laws aren’t standing up to oil trains in the way most people would expect. Particularly in the wake of the Mosier oil train disaster. It’s really alarming,” said Dan Serres, conservation director for the Columbia Riverkeeper.
DEQ’s attempts to regulate the Zenith terminal show how ill-informed and ill-prepared the state’s oil spill responders can be under the state’s current regulations for oil by rail.
Regulators In The Dark
At various points throughout 2018, Zenith’s terminal manager informed DEQ that the company was switching away from Canadian crude to a lighter oil, and that it was moving away from crude entirely, according to agency emails.
The company also switched its planned oil spill drill to prepare for diesel instead of tar sands crude — an entirely different type of response.
“He claims that over the next 3 years the facility will primarily be handling diesel and he does not expect any more shipments of the heavy crude oil for some time,” Scott Smith, who regulates the Zenith facility for DEQ, wrote in an email to colleagues.
That didn’t happen.
Zenith continued to handle heavy crude from Canada. Its current construction indicates it is increasing that business.
In an emailed statement, Mastal said Zenith never told DEQ it was shifting operations away from crude oil, only that it was switching the type of crude oil. She also said a large part of the company’s Portland business plan is now attracting renewable fuels.
“There appears to be a misunderstanding of industry terminology as it relates to various grades and types of oil,” Mastal said in the statement.
Records show it took Smith weeks to obtain the chemical data sheets telling him exactly what the terminal was handling, something he usually gets before a new product is being shipped.
“One of the most important things we look at it is, ‘What is the oil or chemical that spilled and its physical and chemical properties?’” Smith later told OPB. “They determine how we respond.”
Those sheets contained another surprise: There’s hydrogen sulfide in the dilbit crude, as the industry refers to diluted bitumen crude from the tar sands.
“I was alarmed to see that the Tar Sands they are working with now require full face air supplied respirators or SCBA’s [self-contained breathing apparatuses],” Smith wrote in an email obtained by OPB. He told fellow regulators at DEQ and the Department of Labor that the tar sands oils had other properties that call for extra precaution.
According to DEQ, the risk of toxic inhalation from hydrogen sulfide significantly reduces the number of potential responders in the event of a spill, because not all of them or trained or equipped for it. That also limits the speed of response, if people need to be evacuated and work in shifts because of limited air supply.
Depending on weather, spilled oil containing hydrogen sulfide could pose an air quality risk to neighbors, according to DEQ.
“Zenith disagrees with the implication there are additional hazards brought on by Dilbit Crude,” wrote Mastal, the Zenith public relations representative in her emailed response to questions.
Mastal said the concentrations of hydrogen sulfide in the crude handled on site are below federal exposure limits for workers. She said the company has emergency equipment and procedures in place, and that Zenith has extensive experience handling heavy crude, including drills in four of the past five years.
After questions from DEQ, the company hired an industrial hygienist to assess the risks from the crude oil it is stores. Zenith has since updated its official spill response plan to account for toxic inhalation risks.