New report sheds light on Cascadia earthquake risks; public input sought by Aug. 15. 

August 6, 2021

Multnomah County and City of Portland are seeking public input on a study outlining the far-reaching damages from Portland’s Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub when a major seismic event hits the Pacific Northwest. The deadline to submit public comment is Sunday, August 15.  

Read the report: Impacts of a Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake on the CEI Hub

On Wednesday, Aug. 4, the project team hosted a live, online, community meeting for interested residents. The virtual presentation detailed the findings of the report, which estimates 94 to 194 million gallons of liquid fuel will be released from the storage tanks along the Willamette River in the event of a magnitude 8 or 9 Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. The effects of such a liquid spill would be catastrophic, impacting humans, wildlife, and the environment. 

A series of fuel tanks along the Willamette River with Portland's West Hills in the background.

“The predicted impacts are truly horrific,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran, whose district includes the Linnton neighborhood, which borders the industrial area. “This kind of analysis helps move us toward answering that big question which is really, ‘So what are we going to do about it? How can we hold industry accountable for being part of these solutions to prevent catastrophe?”

Multnomah County, City of Portland commissioned the study 

Multnomah County Office of Sustainability and City of Portland Bureau of Emergency Management commissioned the study in 2020, aiming to quantify the short- and long-term impacts of an infrastructure failure in the event of an earthquake. The report — prepared by ECONorthwest and Salus Resilience — considers the magnitude of the event, the financial risk, and who the risk belongs to.

Regulatory authority belongs to a handful of jurisdictions including the County, City of Portland, State of Oregon, and federal government. Part of the study involves determining how those responsibilities are shared and what action, if any, the different governments can take to regulate industry. 

“What we are trying to do is convene groups of both local and state leaders and even our federal delegation in thinking about what the solutions could be at each step of the process,” Commissioner Meieran said. “[The County has] very little if any direct authority to do something to regulate the CEI Hub.”

“The overall message of the report is clear and is not in the least bit surprising,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal added. “When the earthquake happens, not if, but when, the likely consequences to and from the CEI Hub will be catastrophic. It’ll be catastrophic to commercial activity, to recreation, to culture and most of all to the air we breathe, our water and our very lives.”

Report predicts widespread impacts to humans, wildlife and environment 

The Hub — located along a six-mile stretch of industrial land on the west shore of the Willamette River —contains more than 90 percent of all liquid fuels in Oregon. That includes the gas and diesel supply for the Portland Metro Area, all of the jet fuel for Portland International Airport, and other hazardous materials. 

Because the Hub was built before a full understanding of the region’s earthquake risk, it’s especially vulnerable in the event of a massive earthquake. The Hub is built on soil subject to liquefaction. An earthquake could cause one of the largest oil spills in history, devastating Portland’s natural habitat and nearby neighborhoods. Damage to infrastructure and delayed emergency response times will worsen the disaster. 

“It's not just a bunch of tanks rupturing. It's a bunch of tanks rupturing in a world where there's already going to be a lot else that we're going to have to deal with,” said Adam Domanski, who helped prepare the report. 

There are 630 tanks varying in size throughout the CEI Hub. Collectively, they hold approximately 304 million gallons. There are 415 tanks in active service. Ninety-three percent of them were built prior to 1993 and are not expected to withstand a large seismic event. The study does not take into account other risks including nearby pipelines, hazardous materials, and oil trains.

The study analyzed a wide range of impact types including impacts to navigation and river-related commercial activity, recreation, short- and long-term environmental effects, air quality, cultural and tribal resources, and loss of life. 

“Direct physical harm is a component that we're thinking through and to understand the magnitude will somewhat depend on if there's a fire or not, how far the fuels and materials go down river, how much of it burns and how bad the air quality is,” said Laura Marshall, who helped prepare the report. 

The industrial Hub employs about 200 workers. Other nearby workers, residents, and commuters are also at risk of direct physical harm. The nearby zip codes have a total combined population of 16,508 and a total employment of 31,517. 

The wildlife and habitat impacts would be devastating, as well. Estuaries, wetlands, and wildlife refuges all reside downstream of the impact site. The industrial Hub is adjacent to Sauvie Island and Forest Park, one of the country’s largest urban forest reserves. Species of the area including endangered birds, fish and reptiles are likely to face direct mortality, long-term health issues, and damage to their food supply.

“We are completely unprepared for an oil spill,” said Bob Sallinger, the Director of Conservation for the Portland Audubon Society. “My experience is that we are just utterly unprepared for dealing with the wildlife impacts if we had a major oil spill in Oregon.”

Neighbors voice concerns, more public input sought

Residents expressed shock and frustration, along with hope that something can be done to prevent the disaster from happening in the first place.

“If this horrific catastrophe probability isn't enough of an incentive to speed up the transition away from fossil fuels, I don't know what would be,” said Jim Emerson. “If Oregon could lead on this within a five or 10-year period, we could get to the point where we wouldn't need all those tanks.”

“This really is a public health issue for ourselves and for other species,” said Alice Shapiro. “There’s no question we would lose birds, fish, agricultural land, pretty much our whole way of being,” 

“It's terrifying but it's also really hopeful that we're getting out in front of this,” said Audrey Zed. “We actually have a chance to get ahead of this disaster.” 

The next phase of the project aims to estimate the damages from a CEI Hub failure and measure the fiscal responsibility. Residents are encouraged to submit feedback on the accuracy of the report and provide input that may strengthen the report. 

“If we've learned anything from these last 18 months it is that a future that was once unimaginable is here,” Commissioner Jayapal said. “A once-in-a-generation virus, wildfires that behave like none we've ever seen, an unprecedented heat dome, drought, it's all here. And this report is part of the effort to meet that future and we need your participation and input.”

Please use this link to leave your comments about the report