A river on fire with millions of gallons of oil, jet fuel and gasoline spilled. An environmental disaster ranked among the worst in America. No fuel for a state trying to recover from a major earthquake.
Scientists say Oregon faces a potential nightmare scenario unless work is done to fortify its main fuel storage facility against a major earthquake, which will happen sooner or later.
More than 90% of the state’s liquid fuels are stored at the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub, along a 6-mile (10 kilometer) stretch of the Willamette River northwest of Portland.
This week, Oregon lawmakers began taking action to require owners and operators of the facility’s aging storage tanks to make them earthquake-proof.
A new report commissioned by the City of Portland and Multnomah County noted that the hub is built on soil prone to liquefaction during an earthquake, meaning waterlogged sediment would temporarily lose its strength. and act like a fluid.
The industrial area contains 46 large aboveground fuel tanks, a liquefied natural gas storage facility and pipelines, according to a state report. Some fuel tanks are over 100 years old and most were built at least 50 years ago.
The study estimated that a major earthquake along the Cascadia subduction zone would result in 95 million to 194 million gallons (432 million to 882 million liters) of fuels spouting from the reservoirs. The spill would flow from the Willamette River into the nearby Columbia River and, unless contained, would reach the Pacific Ocean, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) to the northwest.
The predicted damage is comparable to the greatest environmental disaster in US history, when BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded in 2010, spilling at least 134 million gallons (609 million liters) of oil in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Fuel releases are likely to cause explosions and fires,” the Oregon researchers wrote. “If the fire spreads to other properties, there are very great threats to human life, safety, physical structures and natural resources.”
California is known for its earthquakes, especially along the San Andreas Fault. But experts predict one of the world’s largest earthquakes could strike any day along the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which stretches from northern California to Oregon and Washington State in Canada. Cascadia’s last major earthquake occurred in 1700, with an estimated magnitude of 9.
Oregon officials recognize the threat and have taken steps to mitigate it.
Great Oregon ShakeOut Day is held annually to encourage residents to learn how to respond to an earthquake. Governor Kate Brown frequently reminds people to keep an emergency kit with at least two weeks worth of food, water and other necessities. Tsunami area warning signs dot the coastal highways.
In 1995, the legislature prohibited the construction of certain emergency facilities and other public facilities in areas inundated by tsunamis. But it repealed the measure in 2019 after coastal lawmakers said that without new emergency services buildings, coastal residents and businesses would be unable to obtain property insurance, which would drive down property values. .
Oregon last year joined an early warning system operated by the US Geological Survey. It uses seismograph sensors to quickly detect large earthquakes so that alerts reach smartphones and people can take shelter. Washington State and California also use the system.
An earthquake of at least magnitude 7 has a 37% chance of occurring off the Oregon coast within the next 50 years, according to Chris Goldfinger, an earthquake expert and professor at Oregon State University. A magnitude 9 earthquake has a 10 to 15 percent chance of occurring during this period, he said. The largest earthquake on record was magnitude 9.5, hitting southern Chile in 1960.
“We’re living with a ticking time bomb,” Senator Michael Dembrow, a Portland native and one of the bill’s lead sponsors, said Monday during the Senate Energy and Environment Committee’s public hearing. on the measure.
Dembrow said every time he walks past the storage tanks, he has a “nightmare vision of the earthquake hitting, as we know it, and we the elect must ask ourselves: why did we ignored the warnings?
“If this happens, how do we live with ourselves?” he asked his fellow legislators. Two dozen others joined him in sponsoring the bill.
Leaders of the Oregon branch of the American Society of Civil Engineers testified that it is extremely important that the facility be made earthquake resistant. They noted that after a major earthquake, fuel will be needed to power generators, equipment and vehicles for relief and emergency personnel.
All of Portland International Airport’s jet fuel is stored at the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub. Without it, planes bringing aid to Oregon would not be able to refuel.
Mike Harryman, appointed by the governor as Oregon’s first state resilience officer and tasked with preparing for a Cascadia earthquake, said Oregon would feel three hits: from the earthquake himself, of the tsunami and of “the disaster” at the fuel center.
“To date, I am not aware that any seismic mitigation has been initiated at the site by any of the owners and/or operators,” he told the hearing.
Bill requires owners or operators of bulk petroleum and liquid fuels terminals to complete and submit seismic vulnerability assessments by June 1, 2024 to Oregon Department of Environmental Quality , who will review and approve them. Owners and operators will then implement a ministry-approved seismic risk plan.
“How they do the work and on what timeline is still unclear,” Dembrow said in an email.
Jessica Spiegel of the Western States Petroleum Association, a nonprofit that represents companies involved in the oil industry in five western states, including Oregon, noted that the bill comes with significant costs , but that federal funds may be available to mitigate them.
She said when setting fees, “some understanding of the needs of businesses in the state” should be considered.