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Critics, supporters turn out en masse on proposed propane terminal

By Steve Law
Portland Tribune

About 300 people turned out Tuesday for the first public hearing on a proposed half-billion-dollar propane terminal in North Portland.

Critics, supporters turn out en masse on proposed propane terminal

Photo Credit: COURTESY PEMBINA PIPELINE CORP. - A train is loaded with propane in Pembina's operations in Alberta.

About 300 people turned out Tuesday for the first public hearing on a proposed half-billion-dollar propane terminal in North Portland.

Canada-based Pembina Pipeline Corp. hopes to build one of the most expensive capital improvements in Portland history on an empty parcel in the Port of Portland’s Terminal 6, just across the Columbia Slough from West Hayden Island. Pembina would transport the compressed propane in liquid form in trains of 100 cars or more from Alberta, Canada, to the Port, where it would be stored in two giant tanks up to 150 foot tall on the shore of the Columbia River.

Pembina touted its safety record and some $12 million a year it will pay in local property taxes, along with $250 million in local purchases. Environmentalists and Hayden Island neighbors cited fears about propane explosions, and expressed alarm about Portland contributing to higher global carbon emissions once the propane is used in Asia.

After taking three hours of testimony, with dozens of people still waiting to comment, the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission decided to schedule another session on March 17, when a final vote on the project may occur.

At issue is a pipe of about 50 feet that would ferry the propane from shore-based tanks to ships docked at Berth 607. That segment of the project would take place in an environmental zone, over the shoreline, and a pipeline carrying hazardous material would require a city code amendment. Though the pipe is a relatively small part of the project, the zone change is the issue that many critics are hanging their hat on to fight the project.

The city of Portland should not be party to sending Canadian fossil fuel exports to Asia, said Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland. “We need to be leaving carbon-based fuels in the ground.”

Pembina, aware its proposal has engendered significant opposition from environmentalists and neighbors, announced a package of sweeteners as the hearing began. The company pledged to improve the shoreline habitat, to buy “green power” to offset its massive electricity purchases, and agreed to hire local union workers.

Pembina’s dedication to safety resulted in no lost work days for its entire work force last year, said Harry Anderson, the company’s general counsel.

The company also transported 3.1 million gallons of propane to Portland last year without any incidents, he said.

The company has consistently avoided any talk about potential “blast zones” should propane erupt in flames, as has occurred in some frightening oil train accidents. But when pressed by planning commissioners Tuesday, the company’s local project manager Eric Dick said modeling during the last two years indicated a potential blast zone with a 300-yard radius, though that’s a generic estimate and a more precise study of the Portland project is needed.

Hayden Island residents, who have been researching propane explosions elsewhere, cited fears of a two-mile blast zone, which could affect thousands of residents.

“It’s a ticking time bomb in the middle of a very special place,” said David Red Thunder, who lives on Hayden Island.

In response to concerns that Portland would be abetting a major increase in carbon emissions in Asia, Anderson said he "understands" that 50 to 100 percent of the propane would be used to produce plastics, replacing the use of oil.

One of the more intriguing aspects of propane is its use as a so-called transitional fuel, because it has a lower carbon footprint than coal or oil, until renewable energy can supplant it.

“If you’re going to be successful in the battle against climate change, we’re going to need transitional fuels,” said Curtis Robinhold, the deputy executive director of the Port of Portland.

The school bus fleet serving Portland Public Schools has switched from diesel buses to propane-powered buses, he said, cutting air emissions and reducing the carbon footprint. “We should want that in Asia as well,” he said.

But many people in the audience Tuesday had just come from a demonstration against the project before the hearing. Many spoke passionately against the use of “fracking” to extract the natural gas in Alberta from which the propane would be derived. Carbon emissions from fracked natural gas are just as high as from coal, because so much of the gas escapes into the atmosphere, said Scott Schroder, an organizer for Portland Rising Tide. Schroder said he led a civil disobedience campaign for the group months ago in Eastern Oregon, blocking highways being used to transport equipment destined for use in the Canadian Tar Sands where fracking is commonplace. He said it would be much easier to mobilize such protests against a propane terminal in Portland.

Even if the project is approved, Schroder warned the Pembina folks in attendance, “I will make it really, really hard for you.”

City planning staff will now do more research and answer questions raised in Tuesday’s testimony, and then post their findings on the Internet. Citizens may then provide written testimony, probably until March 17. The city also may invite representatives of Northwest tribes to testify, though it’s unclear if others will be allowed to speak on March 17.

After a vote is taken, the Planning and Sustainability Commission recommendation goest to the Portland City Council for final action.

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