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The Grassroots Fight Against Global Oil Giant: Zenith Energy

A group of protesters from the climate activism group Extinction Rebellion gather under a yellow fire truck with a sign that reads “Stop Zenith Oil.” Photo by Stella Garrido-Spencer. 

On April 21 of 2019, members of climate activist group Extinction Rebellion deposited a dump truck load of soil on the railroad tracks at the Zenith Oil-by-Rail facility in Northwest Portland. They filled the soil with plants, and stuck a scarecrow on the plot, singing as they created what they called the “Victory Over Fossil Fuels Garden.” For 34 hours they held the tracks, preventing the terminal from operation, and drawing public attention to the facility. They voiced their goals in a four page letter to the City of Portland which called for Mayor Ted Wheeler and the Portland City Commissioners to update the city’s climate plan, and change the zoning rules around Zenith in order to shut down the facility. The direct action culminated in 18 arrests, but the activists vowed to return until their work was finished. The “Victory Garden” was not the first, but one of many actions of public outcry which gradually increased pressure on the City of Portland to act against Zenith Energy.

Zenith Energy is an American based crude oil and natural gas transportation company, which according to their website “owns and operates 25 terminals across 14 states, each equipped to specialize in a unique type of liquid storage.” The Portland facility is located on NW Front Avenue on the bank of the Willamette River in an area that is known as Portland’s Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub. Zenith Energy advertises that “the Portland Terminal is capable of receiving, storing, and delivering heavy and light petroleum products via Panamax sized vessels, railroad, and truck loading rack.” With a capacity for 1,518,200 barrels at a time, the Portland Mercury estimates that over 200 million gallons of crude oil move through the facility each year. 

Aside from the overarching goal of halting climate change, different organizers cite a plethora of reasons for their resistance to Zenith Energy. In an interview with Yes! Magazine directly following a catastrophic oil train derailment in 2016 in Mosier Oregon, Tyson Johnston, the Quinault Vice President at the time said, “oil trains mean an ever-present risk of an oil spill into our waterways, threatening fisheries and livelihoods for Quinault Indian Nation members and our neighbors in Grays Harbor.” For years, Indigenous activists have been leading the fight against oil trains through protest and environmental advocacy, as they are often the first groups affected when oil train accidents occur. Tara Houska, a tribal attorney, Indigenous activist, and member of the Couchiching First Nation said in an interview for the documentary film Necessity Part I: Oil, Water and Climate Resistance, that “If people don’t feel [a] sense of urgency, they should. They really, really should. There’s nothing more sacred and more important to your survival than water.”

Diana Meisenhelter, who is a member of the NAACP environmental justice committee, and on the action team of Extinction Rebellion, also cites the risk of oil spills as a motivation for her resistance to Zenith. She points out that an oil spill would “not only have a horrible effect on neighborhoods, but it would likely cause a huge forest fire.” Meisenhelter is also concerned about air quality injustice, because “low income and BIPOC neighborhoods have the highest concentration of all pollutants [in their neighborhoods]” due to where the facility is located, “and there are disproportionate health risks because of that.” Meisenhelter was one of the 18 activists arrested on the Zenith railroad tracks in 2019 and has participated in countless direct actions against Zenith. Her activism also looks like raising awareness about the issue by going out and talking to residents of North Portland Neighborhoods who are affected by the Zenith terminal and want to get their voices amplified to the city.

Kate Murphy, a climate activist and community organizer with the local watershed protection group Columbia Riverkeeper, voiced concerns about both the everyday risks of operation, the long term contributions towards climate change, and the seismic risks unique to this facility. “The actual facility is located in what’s called a liquefaction zone. So what that means is, if there’s an earthquake, all of that soil in that whole area where the CEI (Critical Energy Infrastructure) hub is located, would turn basically to the consistency of cake batter.” She adds that if there were to be an earthquake, which Portland is long overdue for, “this spill would be catastrophic for the Columbia River; the lower Columbia would essentially be destroyed.” Columbia Riverkeeper’s contribution to the movement against Zenith has been legal advocacy work as well as community organizing. “I think Riverkeeper has been a great partner in the sense that we’ve been able to engage in some strategic legal actions where others may not have the capacity to engage and we have contributed to some really creative and effective organizing tactics. We play an important role with our combination of grassroots organizing, sound legal strategy, and also community building.” But Murphy emphasizes that “none of it could happen without community and coalition partnerships […] I just want to really stress the importance of all of us coming together to work on this as a community.” 

Zenith has had a presence in Portland since 2017, when it purchased the facility from its predecessor, Arc Logistics. Upon obtaining the facility, Zenith immediately proposed building new unloading racks to increase their unloading capacity from 12 to 44 cars. This proposal enraged many residents, particularly because Zenith was operating under an old permit from 2007 acquired by Arc Logistics instead of going through the process of obtaining their own updated permit. Murphy says that “when Zenith constructed those racks, they assured the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality there would be no increase in throughput, meaning the amount or quantity of material going through the facility. [I]n fact, within a few years of constructing those racks, Zenith increased its throughput by over 200 million gallons a year, so there is a massive increase in risk to our communities and our environment.” Murphy adds that “Riverkeeper was involved in the campaign at that point,” but despite the community opposition, “ultimately Zenith was allowed to build those racks.” 

After the expansion of the facility, activism against Zenith heated up. Direct actions continued to be organized, meetings were held with the city, alliances between climate groups formed, but despite the concern that local politicians responded with, their message remained that there was nothing they could do. In the documentary Necessity Part II: Rivers, Resistance and Oil by Rail, Jan Zuckerman, a climate activist, and former PPS teacher describes how “the mayor told us many times that his hands were tied, that they were looking into every legal action that they could take” and that “[they] agree that this is a danger to our community, [they] don’t want [Zenith] here, but [they] don’t know what to do.” 

An opportunity for the city to prove their commitment to halting climate change and take legal action against Zenith did, however, present itself in early 2021, when the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality called upon Zenith to acquire an updated Land Use Compatibility Statement (LUCS) from the City of Portland, in order to renew their Title V air permit. “A land use compatibility statement is a document that state agencies often request from local governments,” writes Ken Ray, the public information officer for the City of Portland Bureau of Developmental Services. In the case of Zenith’s LUCS, the state agency Ray refers to is the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and the local government is the City of Portland. Ray elaborates that “these state agencies must determine whether a business’s proposed operations for which it has applied for a state-issued permit are compatible with the zoning and comprehensive land use plans that the affected local governments have in place.” 

“Essentially we’re saying ‘you gave us this LUCS a long time ago, and you’re doing a lot more now, so if you wanna renew your air quality permit we’re gonna need new sign off from the city saying that they’re on board with everything that you’re doing,’” says Lauren Wirtis, the public affairs specialist for the Department of Environmental Quality, when describing why the DEQ requested a new LUCS from Zenith. 

This presented the City of Portland with a choice: to either ignore the demands that local communities continued to voice and renew the LUCS, or deny the LUCS and face a potential lawsuit from Zenith Energy. Local organizers seized this moment as an opportunity to bring as many people together as possible and voice their demand one final time: to shut down the Zenith Oil facility by any means necessary. 

“We really weren’t sure how it was going to go until the week that decision was made. We were still hearing that it was probably going to be approved with conditions, but that same week, there was increasing opposition every day […] one thing after the next,” recalls Murphy. “Ultimately, 46 neighborhood associations gave public opposition, 17 environmental and community groups joined in the opposition, we had 20 Oregon State legislators [who] came out publicly in opposition, and the entirety of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners came out in opposition. That’s on top of thousands and thousands of individual community members and residents who were making phone calls and writing letters and doing really creative things to get the city to understand how much people care about this issue.” 

On August 27, 2021 the City of Portland denied Zenith Energy a Land Use Compatibility Statement, and subsequently on September 1, the Department of Environmental Policy issued a proposed denial of Zenith Energy’s application to renew the Title V air quality permit. Though grassroots organizing likely played a role in influencing the city’s decision, it is impossible to quantify to what extent. 

In October, Zenith appealed both the city’s decision to deny the LUCS, and the DEQ’s denial of the Title V air quality permit. Wirtis explains that Zenith will be allowed to continue to operate under the same permit until the process of appeals is complete.“Legally, until that decision is made, whatever is happening before is what stands […] basically we are all waiting to see what happens at the Land Use Board of Appeal (LUBA).” Zenith’s hearing with LUBA was on November 16, and though they should release a decision by the end of December, the timeline for appeals may depend on how far Zenith chooses to take it. 

To Meisenhelter, Portland’s landmark decision against Zenith is “a victory in terms of all of the work that everybody put into it,” but, “it’s not a full victory until we can shut them down. And so that is what we will continue to work on in every way possible.”

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