Yumei Wang dug one foot into the sand beneath her, and water crept in around it. Like a sandcastle left to the tide, the ground beneath her turned to silty pudding.
But Wang was not at the beach. She was in Northwest Portland’s industrial district, examining the six-mile stretch along the Willamette River that holds more than 90 percent of the state’s fuel supply.
“Is there any worse soil in Portland that we could have built on?” she asked.
Wang, an engineer with Oregon’s Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, known as DOGAMI, wrote a report in 2013 that said an earthquake could cause this ground to liquify, as she had just now demonstrated.
“The risk here is extreme,” she said. After an earthquake, “within 10, 20 seconds, the sand will turn into a thick, sandy soup.”
And that would be bad.
Soil liquefaction, as it’s known to geologists, can exacerbate shaking and destroy roads, buildings and underground pipes. If that happens here in Portland, it could devastate supply lines for fuel, electricity and natural gas. It could also mean a major chemical spill into the Willamette River.
What exactly is the problem?
Oregon’s petroleum reserves, along with substations, key pipelines and natural gas storage, are highly concentrated in one stretch along the Willamette River. Scientists now know that stretch of land poses a higher seismic risk than other parts of the city.
DOGAMI modeling for a magnitude-9 earthquake shows most of the petroleum tanks in that area sit on soils the agency considers to have a medium to high probability of liquefaction. The area is also predicted to have very strong shaking.
What’s more, many of the tanks are decades old and were built before seismic requirements in building codes. OPB analyzed facility information from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality for eight fuel terminals. That analysis found approximately 85 percent of total tank capacity for gasoline, diesel, ethanol and jet fuel was built before 1993, the first year building codes accounted for a basic understanding of the Cascadia fault and modern seismic loading.
That won't make much difference if soil liquefaction occurs, but it does increase the overall risk that one or more tanks won't withstand sustained shaking.
Why is that a problem?
With no other sources of fuel, seismic vulnerabilities to the petroleum supply chain through Portland are the primary reason experts say the fuel you have in your car when the earthquake happens is the only fuel you will have for several weeks.
That could have a domino effect on recovery efforts: If you don’t have enough food, water or supplies in your earthquake kit, you’ll need to drive to the store, which will cost fuel. If your power goes out and you want to use a backup generator, it needs fuel.
Government vehicles for clearing roads, distributing emergency supplies or searching for earthquake victims also requires fuel.
Do other states have this same problem?
No. Other states with known earthquake hazards, such as California and Washington, have their own refineries spread further across the state. Coastal refineries will have their own problems during an earthquake, but a diversified fuel supply means a higher likelihood of some part withstanding a natural disaster.
Oregon has no refineries of its own. It gets its fuel from Washington via the Olympic Pipeline. So Oregon runs the added risk of losing its fuel supply should Washington’s refineries or pipelines not withstand a Cascadia earthquake.
When did all this happen?
Filling in parts of the river with dredge spoils started in the early 1900s. By the 1930s, lakes like Guild's Lake and Kittredge Lake were no more; marine and rail terminals had taken their place.
It wasn’t until years later that scientists realized the seismic impacts of the decision to fill in those parts of the river and build fuel terminals on them. The potential for liquefaction to unleash widespread damage became much clearer after recent quakes in Chile, New Zealand and Japan. Scientists didn’t begin to recognize the potential of the Cascadia subduction zone until the late 1980s and ‘90s.
The vulnerability of Portland’s energy hub specifically is a more recent revelation. It has been well known for at least two years, after DOGAMI, along with the Oregon Department of Energy and the Oregon Public Utility Commission, issued a report on the subject. Wang’s research appeared on the front page of The Oregonian in September, 2013, but the issue has remained largely unaddressed and unpublicized since.
What do the facility owners think of this?
Several companies operate major fuel terminals along the stretch of riverbank known as the “energy hub”: Arc Terminals, BP, Chevron, Kinder Morgan, McCall Oil, NuStar Energy, Phillips 66, Pacific Terminal Services and Shell.
Owners of those facilities said their equipment meets legal requirements and industry standards. They also pointed to the results of routine inspections and a safety record with little history of spills or earthquake damage.
Ana Bertolucci, a spokeswoman for NuStar Energy, said the company’s Portland terminal is a “vital link in maintaining the fuel supply in the region” and as such it was equipped with 24/7 monitoring, automated shutdown equipment and alarms.
“NuStar’s first guiding principle is to be a safe and responsible operator, so the company takes every measure possible to protect our employees, neighbors and the environment,” she wrote. “And we are proud to have a safety record that is by far the best in our industry.”
Kinder Morgan, which operates two terminals in the hub, said in a statement that its history shows “robust performance during incidents beyond our control such as earthquakes.”
“In fact, Kinder Morgan operates many facilities and pipelines within the active fault areas in California, yet the company has never lost a pipeline or a tank to an earthquake event,” the statement read.
What can be done about the problem?
The single most important fix for the energy hub would be reinforcing the soil. This can be done in various ways, including injections of grout to make the soil less permeable, or installing stone columns within the ground.
Beyond that, seismic upgrades could be made on tanks and other structures. Not until 1993 did Oregon building codes adequately consider seismic loads, but tanks built decades before then are not required to be updated to match current law.
Wang’s report for DOGAMI in 2013 listed other key recommendations aside from soil reinforcement:
What is being done?
Some progress has been made, but the recommendations from Wang’s report remain unfulfilled.
Seismic upgrades for these tank farms fall into a regulatory gap.
OPB reviewed hundreds of pages of correspondence between state and city officials and facility owners. Those records showed attempts to engage owners of the tank farms in discussions for mitigation, with mixed success. At times the energy companies were described as either shying away from questions or insisting tanks are secure. The records also show confusion over which agency could and should take the lead on enforcing seismic upgrades.
DOGAMI, the agency with seismic expertise, does not have that regulatory authority. Its report on the energy hub recommended Oregon’s Homeland Security Council, but that council is now inactive.
After the DOGAMI report, Portland Commissioner Steve Novick discussed the issue with most of the facility owners. He also initiated talks with Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden’s office about asking the facilities to conduct seismic assessments and to determine how much fuel would be needed to remain operational after an earthquake.
The Portland Bureau of Emergency Management is also conducting a risk assessment of Portland's critical energy hub, which the agency said will focus on community education.
However, none of those efforts appear to have yielded significant changes.
In response to written questions, some facilities reported that they have conducted seismic assessments.
“Ensuring the safety of our facility and the surrounding community is a priority, and requires a thorough approach,” said Jerry Henderson, manager of the Chevron terminal in Portland. “We are still in the process of evaluating our studies and developing the appropriate mitigation strategies.”
Others have not completed seismic assessments, or did not respond.
OPB asked facility owners if they voluntarily improve the ground beneath older tanks. Of those that responded, none had.
Ed Jahn contributed reporting.