Crude oil trains increasingly travel through Portland, alarming regulators


As the rail traffic increased so did tankship activity. In early 2018, regulators began tracking oil tanker berthings within the Port of Portland. They homed in on vessels that tied up at a dock owned by Chevron, which Zenith contracts with to load ships. 

Once laden, the vessels sailed for places like Rizhao, China; Yeosu, South Korea; and Martinez, California, according to shipping data. The tankers generally hold about 200,000 barrels. 

Zenith says it completed one marine shipment in 2017 and 10 in 2018. The pace is much faster this year, Zenith acknowledged, with five tankships filled in the first three months. 

The activity essentially created Oregon’s crude oil export market. The value of crude exports from Oregon in 2017 reached just $2,523, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. In 2018, the figure topped $71 million. According to Smith, Zenith is the only business in Oregon facilitating crude oil exports. 

Zenith representatives say the company is not an exporter but a “liquids storage company” with no control over products’ destination. Zenith cannot load tankships alone, and must pump crude oil from its storage tanks through pipes beneath Front Avenue to Chevron’s dock to fill ships and barges. 

When oil-bearing rail cars first arrived at the terminal under Zenith’s ownership, they were loaded with raw bitumen oil sands, a peanut butter-like oil that must be heated or diluted with solvents to make it flow. Shipping vessel records indicate the bitumen oil likely ended up in China and South Korea.

Reamer said the bitumen exports were carried out under a contract entered into by the terminal’s previous owner, which Zenith did not renew because its business plan had changed.

Since then, the oil arriving on tank cars is processed bitumen, to which a solvent has been added in Canada. It’s known in the industry as “dilbit” – diluted bitumen. 


Zenith’s dilbit is extremely dangerous according to its manufacturer, MEG Energy. 

A technical document prepared by MEG that describes its hazards, called a safety data sheet, explains the oil is “extremely flammable” and that its vapors “may form explosive mixtures with air.”

The oil also contains benzene, exposure to which can cause cancer, and hydrogen sulfide, a gas which if inhaled can cause breathing problems at low concentrations and, at higher intensities, loss of consciousness or respiratory failure. 

Other kinds of crude commonly transported by rail, such as sweet crude drawn from wells in the Dakotas, are extremely flammable and may contain hydrogen sulfide. 

But Smith, the spills regulator, said the chemical’s presence in dilbit oil presents a “unique” inhalation and exposure hazard. The technical safety document for sweet crude, for example, calls it an “aspiration hazard” and an “eye irritant.” The safety sheet for Zenith’s dilbit, by contrast, highlights its “acute toxicity” and the possibility of “serious eye damage.”

In a statement, Zenith said, “We disagree with the statement that there are additional hazards brought on by Canadian dilbit.” It said the hydrogen sulfide levels in its oil are below exposure limits, and that dangerous levels of the chemical have never been detected by sensors worn on all its workers’ lapels.

Caldwell said the chance of hydrogen sulfide in Zenith’s oil harming a bystander in the event of a spill is “minuscule.” “It’s not like it’s going to overcome a neighborhood,” he said. Caldwell likened the safety sheets to an insurance policy for oil manufacturers and said their recommendations are “subjective.” 

Dan Serres, conservation director of Columbia Riverkeeper, is not reassured. He said the hydrogen sulfide risk is “really concerning” for people who live or work near railroads. “I don’t take solace in Zenith projecting overconfidence about who could be affected,” Serres said.

A Multnomah County analysis found that one in four county residents live within a half mile of an oil rail line, the distance generally thought to be the danger zone in the event of a fire. Large portions of those residents are people of color.

How exactly the oil traveling to Zenith would behave during a spill is unclear and would depend on where a spill were to take place, the amount of crude let loose and wind conditions. Hydrogen sulfide fumes emitted by the oil are heavier than air and are most dangerous in low areas unless whipped up by gusty winds.

Several real-life spills show what is possible if the worst were to happen to a train bound for Zenith. 

In 2010, a pipeline carrying dilbit burst into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, spilling a million gallons and contaminating vast stretches of waterway. Because dilbit contains heavy tar sands particles, it can sink in water, complicating cleanups, and did so on the Kalamazoo. Remediation of the site took five years and cost more than $1.2 billion. More than 300 people reported effects of hydrogen sulfide inhalation, though none were hospitalized.

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