February 8, 2022

Millions of gallons of fuel spilled in Northwest Portland during a Cascadia earthquake would foul the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, likely spark deadly explosions and fires, and irreparably harm the region’s economy and livability, according to a new report released today by Multnomah County and the city of Portland.

While scientists have long forecast a magnitude-9 earthquake in Oregon’s future, this is the first analysis that identifies up to $2.6 billion in costs from the failure of 630 storage tanks on the west bank of the Willamette River. The tanks store up to 330 million gallons of oil, gas, diesel and other petrochemicals. 

That forecast is propelling Oregon legislators to propose immediate steps to mitigate some of the potential harm. Senate Bill 1567 would require fossil fuel storage companies to begin to assess and plan for such an event. A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for today at 3 p.m. 

Chair Deborah Kafoury, City Commissioner Carmen Rubio, Laura Marshall of ECONorthwest, and Oregon Legislators Sen. Michael Dembrow and Rep. Dacia Grayber also called upon legislators to begin to account and mitigate the potential damage. 

The estimated amount of fuel released during a magnitude-9 earthquake would equal that of the Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010 – the largest oil spill in U.S. waters to date.Unlike the Deepwater Horizon disaster, however, an earthquake affecting what’s known as the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub would result in a massive oil spill over the course of minutes near the heart of a major city, along an inland waterway vital to ecosystems and the commerce of the Pacific Northwest. And unlike in those disasters, the ability to contain the damage would be severely hampered by earthquake damage to surrounding bridges and roads. 

“We can’t prevent a Cascadia earthquake, but we can plan for — and prevent — some of its most devastating impacts,’’ said Chair Kafoury. “We need regulations equal to the risk that these facilities pose.”

Fuel stored on unstable ground

The fuel released would come from the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub, a six-mile area along Highway 30 between Sauvie Island and the Fremont Bridge where more than 90% of the state’s gasoline and diesel, and all the jet fuel used at Portland International Airport, is handled. 

The Hub, built before the current understanding of the region’s earthquake risk, sits on unstable soil subject to liquefaction, lateral spreading and landslides in an earthquake. The report details the potential impact from the failure of those tanks and pipelines of hazardous and flammable products. 

In 2020, the Multnomah County Office of Sustainability and the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management commissioned a study that went beyond several prior evaluations of the earthquake risk to analyze the magnitude, impacts and specific costs of the tank and infrastructure failures. 

The final report, prepared by ECONorthwest, Salus Resilience and Enduring Econometrics, identifies up to $2.6 billion in costs and damages, including:

Deaths and injuries from immediate explosions and evacuations, as well as the widespread longer-term health issues among workers involved in the cleanup and the local population who would be exposed to hazardous smoke and airborne toxins.

  • Deaths and injuries from immediate explosions and evacuations, as well as the widespread longer-term health issues among workers involved in the cleanup and the local population who would be exposed to hazardous smoke and airborne toxins.
  • Loss of habitat as far away as Astoria and the mouth of the Columbia River.
  • Oiling of the shoreline for up to 1,000 waterfront properties in Oregon and Washington.
  • Harm to fisheries, including potential devastating impacts to anadromous fish such as salmon that migrate up river from the Pacific Ocean.
  • Loss of the cultural resources that Tribes rely on for transportation, subsistence and ceremonial purposes and that are guaranteed by treaty.
  • Closure of shipping and river traffic.
  • Loss of recreation from potential fires in Forest Park, to the closure of fishing, swimming and boating in the Lower Willamette and Lower Columbia Rivers.

“If the CEI Hub fails in a Cascadia earthquake, the consequences will be borne disproportionately by Portlanders of color,” said Commissioner Rubio.”If we do not prepare for a disaster that we know is coming, what signal do you think we send to these communities?”

The study also characterizes the enormous challenge of recouping any damages, concluding that the total damages of a spill “will ultimately be borne by a large swath of the

Oregon economy.”

Marshall, project manager for ECONorthwest, said, “We often talk about oil spills and damage assessments after the fact, so it is heartening to see the region taking proactive steps to prevent the worst-case scenario from occurring so that those costs can be avoided.’’

Senate Bill 1567 would require vulnerability assessment, planning

A major finding of the analysis is that no single state or local government knows the age, condition and contents of all the tanks. For those where the age is known, the average tank was built in 1954 — long before modern seismic standards.

On Feb. 1, Sen. Dembrow, D-Portland, introduced Senate Bill 1567, which would require energy terminal owners to submit comprehensive seismic vulnerability assessments and risk mitigation plans to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality no later than June 1, 2024. This legislation also requires the Oregon Department of Energy to develop a statewide Energy Security Plan to better prepare for a seismic event, protect local communities, and align with Oregon’s greenhouse gas reduction goals.

“The evidence is clear, and we must take immediate action to protect the safety of our communities from the risk of failure at the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub,” said Sen. Dembrow. 

“There is no doubt that a major seismic event would compromise the integrity of the fuel storage tanks at the Hub,’’ Sen. Dembrow said. “The result would be catastrophic to residents, to the environment, and to our fuel supply. We know those pollutants would present an immediate danger to the first responders who would be called in to contain the damages. Millions of gallons of fuel could wind up in the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. With the right planning, coordination and oversight, we can reduce these risks. That’s why we must work to pass Senate Bill 1567.”

A broad coalition of legislators, representing parts of the state from the Willamette Valley to the Oregon Coast, have joined together to sponsor the legislation, reflecting the regional significance of the dangers posed by the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub. One of the chief co-sponsors, Rep. Dacia Grayber, D-Tigard, is an active firefighter and the chair of the House Committee on Veterans and Emergency Management.

“This is a public safety crisis that has the potential to unleash a disaster equal to the Deepwater Horizon spill, only right here in our city, at a cost to lives and our environment that I’m not sure we can even fathom,” said Rep. Grayber. “The time to take notice and wake up to the very real danger is long past. The clock is ticking, and we must take action.”

Efforts to engage community:

Multnomah County Commissioners Sharon Meieran and Susheela Jayapal, whose districts touch the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub, led efforts to fund the County’s half of the $100,000 study. They also met with neighbors, community members and emergency responders.

“Community members have been sounding the alarm for years about the risks the CEI Hub poses to human health, the environment and our economy,’’ said Commissioner Meieran. “I’m pleased that we took the important step of commissioning this study to understand the scope of potential damage and the associated costs. But this is the beginning of our work, not the end. Now, we must hold ourselves and industry to account in preventing the nightmare scenario described in this study from becoming a reality.”

“This report confirms the almost incalculable dangers posed by the CEI Hub  — to people, land, air, water, cultural resources, economy, habitat and species,” Commissioner Jayapal said. “Some of the most profound risks will be felt directly across the river, in Cathedral Park, St. Johns, and other North Portland neighborhoods — neighborhoods that already experience some of the worst environmental conditions in the County. Senate Bill 1567 is a necessary step toward addressing and reducing these risks.”

Fellow County Commissioners who voted to fund the study echoed that concern.

“We need everyone to be prepared for a major earthquake, and that includes energy terminal owners,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. “The consequences of a major seismic event could cripple our region and cause billions of dollars in damages and irreparable harm to our environment. This bill will ensure we have better information about the dangers, ensure we have plans in place to mitigate the damages, and help us explore further policies needed to truly protect and prepare ourselves. The best policy: ending our dependence on dangerous and climate harming fossil fuels and moving to a clean energy future. That’s my goal.”

Commissioner Lori Stegmann said, “I am proud of our Board’s long-standing opposition to the expansion and proliferation of fossil fuels. We need local requirements to cover the risks of damage from the Hub, but we also need strong accountability mechanisms and federal mandates. We must hold fossil fuel companies fully liable for the actual cost of an incident and for the risks they pose to our communities.” 

You can download the report here.

The Senate Committee on Energy and Environment will hold a public hearing Monday afternoon, Feb. 7, from 3:15 p.m. - 5 p.m. on Senate Bill 1567.

 To view a live stream of the meeting:


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