A recent report commissioned by Multnomah County and the city of Portland found that the Critical Energy Infrastructure hub, or CEI, is not built of solid ground. The report found that when the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake hits, the ground will liquefy. This is a major issue, as most of the gas, jet fuel, and diesel used in Oregon is stored in the CEI.
According to Laura Marshall of Eco Northwest, 90% of Oregon’s liquid fuel passes through the CEI, a massive complex of fuel storage tanks sitting right on the banks of the Willamette River. The CEI was originally built in this location for easy river access, and now poses a potent threat to the surrounding ecosystem.
County Commissioner Sharon Meieran was the individual pushing for this study in the first place. The CEI has been a concern for residents of the Linnton area for some time — concerns they shared with Meieran.
Of the 630 tanks, it’s unclear when many of them were built, though some predate the mid-’90s. This means that they were built with much laxer earthquake safety standards. Not only would a powerful earthquake destroy the tanks and release fuel into the air and water, but it would also pose a huge fire risk. Downed power lines and sparks produced from the metal tanks themselves could easily ignite the fuel. Emergency services would be unable to effectively mobilize to deal with such a fire in the aftermath of an earthquake, rendering Linnton all the more vulnerable.
Fire danger aside, there is also the ecological impact to consider. Marshall explains that a whole run of salmon would be destroyed by a fuel spill from the CEI. Migratory birds that rely on the Willamette as a nesting site would be similarly harmed. Clean-up crews would also be hampered in their efforts to contain the spill by potentially impassable bridges and roads caused by the earthquake.
There is also the issue of responsibility. “We have regularly seen with disasters relating to fossil fuel, transport and infrastructure, the companies responsible just seem to disappear,” said Meieran.
This leaves local governments holding the bill. and right now, there’s no clear way to pay for it. Meieran’s goal is to shift the financial burden onto the entities responsible for the disaster in the first place — in this case, fuel companies.
Ideally, Multnomah County would retrofit the CEI to make it more earthquake-safe. But unfortunately, the county doesn’t have the regulatory authority to do this.
“We do need to… address that,” said Meieran. “We need to figure out whose authority we’re acting under, and make some of those decisions.”