Portland Commission Gives Propane Company Free Rein to Trample Environmental Conservation Zone

Photo by Pete Shaw

Photo by Pete Shaw

Story by Pete Shaw

Despite the overwhelming number of people testifying in opposition, the Portland Planning and Sustainability commissioners voted 6-4 on April 7 to approve a zoning change that may pave the way for a propane storage and export terminal at the Port of Portland’s Terminal 6. Prior to the vote, the land upon which Pembina Pipeline Corporation hopes to build was zoned for conservation. The facility, if approved by the City Council, will receive propane from Canada and ship it to Asia.

Commissioners first deliberated on whether to keep the current zoning, which failed by a 5-5 tie. Had that vote come out in favor of the current rules, the Port Sustainability Commission (PSC) would then have been done with the issue, although the City Council could have asked them to take it up again.

The commission’s vote effectively functions as a recommendation, albeit a strong one. Its imprimatur is often seen as necessary in moving forward environmentally sensitive projects, and thus when the City council takes up the propane terminal, it can point toward the approval of the PSC.

Ninety-seven people offered testimony over the course of four hours, with 77 of them opposing the zoning change. As many noted, Pembina CEO Mick Dilger had told the Oregonian that if the people of Portland did not want the propane terminal, then there would be no deal. Ranging in age from middle schoolers to elderly grandmothers, and representing people from many walks of life, opponents largely talked about the safety and environmental risks of shipping propane by rail along the Columbia River and through Portland.

First Nations people talked about the effects on their lives. Cathy Sampson-Kruse of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation asked the commissioners to “stop the onslaught” of “corporate colonialism” and to “stand for the people of the First Nations whose cultures are being destroyed.”

Another person from the Umatilla stated that the groups he represented–the Yakima, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce–had not been consulted. He also said the terminal would violate First Nations tribes’ fishing rights, while a First Nations woman from Celilo stated, “You’re going to kill our salmon and our life.”

Still others, particularly from the Concordia, Cully, Hayden Island, Portsmouth and St Johns neighborhoods, worried about propane trains running near their schools, homes, and nearby MAX lines. “What assurances,” one person asked the commissioners, “are you going to give people who live along the rail path?”

Prior to testimony, John Johnson of the Oregon Department of Transportation said that there was “no requirement for the length of trains at the state level.” According to Columbia Riverkeeper and the Audubon Society of Portland, “liquid propane trains are 100 cars long,” and Pembina’s Quality Risk Assessment (QRA) had failed to “assess the impact of shipping liquid propane through Portland neighborhoods.” Furthermore, that QRA defined its “worst case scenario” for a rail accident as a single rail car exploding at the terminal.

Photo by Nick Caleb

Photo by Nick Caleb

Whether talking about within Portland or through the Columbia River Gorge, people worried about the fallout from a derailment and subsequent explosion. Some expressed apprehension regarding the recent spate of train derailments in the US and others were uneasy about the potential for terrorism. As one person pointed out, while Pembina has an excellent safety record, that safety record only applies to its terminals, not the trains upon which propane spends most of its time.

Others pointed out how the Tepco nuclear facility in Japan also had an excellent safety record until a tsunami created a disaster. These people noted how an extremely powerful earthquake like the one considered a given for the Pacific Northwest could bring similar havoc to a propane terminal. According to a risk assessment conducted by DNV GL of Norway, in a storage tank worst-case scenario, an “instantaneous rupture” could release enough propane for a flammable propane vapor cloud to disperse 5.3 miles downwind. If the tank were to explode, according to DNV GL, the hazard zone would extend 3.9 miles.

One way of looking at environmental issues is to consider the rights of future generations. Early in the testimony, four Sunnyside Environmental School students offered their feelings to the commissioners. One mentioned that many of the people making the decisions were “seeing dollar signs and forgetting what is really important.” Another talked about human rights to “clean accessible water, public parks, and clean renewable energy,” adding that “putting in a propane terminal in a protected area is not good.”

The most powerful testimony came from those who see a newly built propane terminal as antithetical to Portland’s environmental values. In particular, people referenced Portland’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) which is touted as building “upon a legacy of forward-thinking climate protection initiatives.” While the CAP does not mention propane, rather focusing on oil and coal, it is difficult to see how a propane terminal could be considered forward-thinking. It is a fossil fuel, and while it burns cleaner, emitting 24% less carbon dioxide than oil per gallon burned, it is found mixed with natural gas and oil deposits, and much of it is gained through fracking. That process despoils the land–First Nations land that has been colonized–uses immense quantities of fresh water, and pollutes the aquifers from which that water is taken. One person testifying noted that because of fracking, propane is neither clean nor safe, and approval of the terminal “would be providing infrastructure that would massively increase our carbon footprint.”

A student at Oregon Health Sciences University said that accepting Pembina’s proposal “directly contradicts Portland’s goals” and would allow “our city to be a thoroughfare for transporting fossil fuels.”

“Moving forward with this project will make a mockery of Portland’s commitment to fighting climate change,” said another.

Photo by Pete Shaw

Photo by Pete Shaw

“We cannot separate the terminal from the propane stored in it,” said a man from North Portland, “and that propane comes with a lot of destruction.”

The four Sunnyside Environmental School students clearly understood how Portland’s Climate Action Plan would become meaningless if the City’s leaders ignore its purpose. “We have a policy for coal and oil only,” said one of them, a 13 year old, “but propane is a byproduct of unclean energy.”

“Getting energy should leave the land and air clean, ” said another, comparing the procurement of fossil fuels to “taking the chocolate chips out of a chocolate chip cookie.”

“Just because it is being done across the world doesn’t mean we should let it happen,” the student said, responding to those who support Pembina’s talking point that other countries are exporting propane. “If we keep saying yes to these things, we will never live in a clean world.”

A member of Friends of the Columbia Gorge told the commissioners that a decision to change the zoning and perhaps allow Pembina to build its terminal “stands to challenge and threaten everything we’ve been able to do in the region.”

Clearly energy companies have long wielded great influence over government. One need only look toward California–a state experiencing terrible drought as a result of human-caused climate change. Recent rules applied to curb water usage make no mention of the companies fracking for energy there. The state responsible for growing most US produce is giving a pass to an industry that is befouling enormous amounts of water.

Pembina does not publicize the profits that will be reaped from propane exports. Instead it relies on the tried and true method of touting “jobs” to sell its project–a strategy Alona Steinke said was “meant to distract” people from the disastrous impact of mining propane. It is estimated that construction of the terminal would bring 600 jobs to Portland, while running it would permanently employ 40 people. Representatives from the business community talked about the importance of sending the message that Portland is serious about business and that it has a stable investment climate. That irony of creating a steady investment climate at the expense of the earth’s climate was not lost on those opposed to the terminal’s construction.

Such testimony creates a false choice: jobs or no jobs. The question is not one of jobs, but of what kind of jobs. Dave King of St. Johns told the commissioners of the need for Portland to take the lead in creating jobs in the green and sustainable economy, such as solar and wind power, as well as in the transportation field like high speed rail.

“What I’ve been hearing is this jobs blackmail business,” said another terminal opponent. “The jobs are important, but we don’t do insanely stupid things to create jobs.”

“We’re going to poison the land, water, and air,” said one person, “but we’re going to do it safely. By what standard is this sustainable?” However, he did find some agreement with Pembina and its supporters on the jobs issue, saying that the terminal would provide more work for oncologists and rescue organizations.

Another person testifying noted that  propane was simply a way “to make fracking more profitable.”

By 8:15 pm, when the commissioners began deliberating the change in zoning, a substantial crowd remained, most opposing the revision. The mood in the room was tense, if hopeful.

Photo by Pete Shaw

Photo by Pete Shaw

When discussing the first vote, Commissioner Chris Smith, who voted to keep the zoning, noted, “There’s no way to do this and say we still believe in our Climate Action Plan…If we embrace this project, we’re essentially gonna get soot on our brand.”

Andre Baugh, chair of the commission, explained that he would vote to change the zoning because he saw propane exports as a way of “sending a message not to use coal and oil.” He talked of equity, saying “it seems disingenuous and hypocritical” for people in the US to tell other people around the world not to use fossil fuels when the US economy has been built using those fuels. On its surface this is a fair enough point. It is hypocritical for countries that have for centuries used coal and oil to become economic powerhouses to tell developing countries that they cannot follow that same path.

But it is also tortured logic to pretend that another fossil fuel like propane is part of the solution. Fracking releases methane–which has a far more devastating impact on climate change than carbon dioxide–making the “cleaner” than oil or coal argument for propane seem that much more ridiculous.

Regardless of the PSC’s vote, it is the Portland City Council that will determine whether Pembina–or any company–gets to build a propane terminal here. One testifier told the commissioners, “If you choose to take Pembina’s bribe and sacrifice our existence, then you should expect resistance every step of the way.” Those who take this threat lightly would do well to bear in mind the intense opposition people in Portland brought to bear to defeat other so-called jobs-generating projects like the proposed interstate over to Mt Hood not all that long ago.

After the PSC hearing, Nick Caleb, who will be running for the council seat currently occupied by Steve Novick, said, “The vote of the Planning and Sustainability Commission ran counter to the values that have made the City of Portland what it is today. The commission simply ignored overwhelming community outcry over this export terminal proposal which included native voices and eloquent schoolchildren pleading for a responsible, science-based decision. Portland City Council must say no to Pembina if we are to maintain our climate commitments and protect the safety and welfare of Portland’s residents and future generations.”

According to Portland’s Planning and Sustainability website, the City Council will have a hearing and vote on granting Pembina permission to construct its facility on April 30. Over 300 people showed up at Tuesday’s PSC hearing. Even more will be needed to convince the City Council to uphold Portland’s professed environmental conscience by quashing this project.

Want to get involved? Call members of the City Council and let them know how you feel about propane trains running through Portland and a propane storage terminal being located in Portland.

You can also join one of the many groups fighting to keep propane trains and the propane storage terminal out of Portland.  Among those groups are: Audubon Society of Portland, Climate Action Coalition, Columbia Riverkeeper, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Portland Rising Tide.


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