‘Perfect storm’ of hazards make Linnton the worst place to be in a natural disaster
(NW Examiner cover story, October 2015)
An airline pilot by trade, Andy Cochran is a pragmatist, a boots-on-the-ground guy with an easy smile and direct style. They’re qualities that serve him well as head of Linnton’s Neighborhood Emergency Team, a group of 22 trained by the city to respond to natural disasters.
At a spot near railroad tracks in central Linnton, Cochran unlocks a padlock on a gray shipping container and moves rakes out of the way.
“Half this stuff is for gardeners and half is for emergencies,” he says, laughing.
He digs through emergency equipment and pulls out an Icom two-way radio. In a recent drill, he says, the team planned to use the radio to communicate with Fire Station 22 in St. Johns.
“We couldn’t hear a thing,” Cochran says.
The city has ordered a new antenna for the radio. What he doesn’t say is the St. Johns Bridge may itself fail in an earthquake, cutting Linnton off from the station.
“We have really bad infrastructure up here in Linnton,” Cochran says. “It’s a great neighborhood,. I love it, but as far as an emergency, it’s a bad one.”
That isn’t the half of it.
In July, a couple of months after joining the city’s Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM) team under an 18-month federal grant, Danielle Butsick’s email inboxes started filling up with an article, sent 30 times by family, friends and colleagues. “The Really Big One,” by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker, details how the next major Pacific Northwest earthquake will “spell the worst natural disaster in the history of the continent.”
The article drew a figurative target on Portland. The bullseye of that target would be Linnton.
“Together, the sloshing, sliding, and shaking will trigger fires, flooding, pipe failures, dam breaches and hazardous-material spills,” the article says. It quotes a FEMA official, “Our operating assumption is that everything west of Interstate 5 will be toast.”
PBEM spokesman Dan Douthit says the article “rang a bell that’s still resonating.” A seismic retrofit program for Portland homeowners, passed with support from Rep. Earl Blumenauer, found a mere 23 takers in 2014, he said. But when an expanded version was announced in July, 4,800 applications poured in.
The people in the know are focused on Linnton.
“We’re actually going to do a Linnton-specific risk assessment,” Douthit said, the first time PBEM has done a risk assessment for a neighborhood.
“We recently administered [$385,482 in] predisaster mitigation funds for an overall update to Portland’s Hazard Mitigation Plan,” wrote Chris Grogan of the Oregon Office of Emergency Management in an email. “Part of the update includes developing strategies to address potential issues at Linnton and determine future projects that will make the facility more resilient.”
Much of Linnton’s infrastructure was built before Oregonians realized the region has earthquakes, and facilities—some 100 years old—weren’t designed to seismic standards, Butsick said.
“We want create a balance between the need for energy infrastructure and its importance to our city and state, but we also want to do all that we can to ensure the safety of Linnton residents,” she added.
What’s the particular problem in Linnton?
To emergency planners, Linnton is the state’s CEI hub. CEI stands for “critical energy infrastructure,” and includes the Olympic Pipeline, petroleum tank farms, natural gas facilities, electrical substations and transmission lines and hazardous material-carrying railroad cars.
“Ninety percent of Oregon’s refined petroleum products come through the CEI hub, and natural gas is stored [in] and passes through the hub,” wrote spokesperson Ali Ryan Hansen of the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) in an email.
“Fuel supplies are concentrated in facilities that may or may not be earthquake ready. Development started 100 years ago, with no or insufficient seismic features, and little regulation on structures. Tanks, pipes and piers may be deficient. Oregon will need those fuel supplies to respond to and recover from a major earthquake.”
Yumei Wang’s 2012 DOGAMI report may be the most important work done to date — and its assessment is troubling.
“Significant seismic risk exists in the CEI Hub,” the study says. “Some critically important structures appear to be susceptible to significant damage in a major earthquake with potentially catastrophic consequences. Multiple liquid fuel transmission pipe breaks and natural gas transmission pipe breaks are possible. Damage to liquid fuel, natural gas, and electrical facilities in the CEI Hub is likely. The waterway would likely be closed and require clean up. … Damage to the electrical grid will likely result in a blackout in the CEI Hub and elsewhere.”
Much of the Linnton CEI hub facilities lie on liquefiable sandy soil and fill, so when the shaking starts, facilities may experience lateral movement of 10 to 25 feet, likely sliding toward the river. Underground structures could be lifted toward the surface, damaging pipelines, piers and electrical transmission lines.
Then there’s the fault line directly under Highway 30 near the Olympic Pipeline. The area is prone to landslides, and soil conditions are also liquefiable soft, sandy fill.
The main escape routes, the St. Johns Bridge and Highway 30, could both become impassable in a major quake.
Long accustomed to cohabitating with heavy industry, Linnton residents don’t mince words when asked about the Big One.
“It’ll be a short time, and you’ll be a crispy critter in a heartbeat,” said James Schulze, who has lived in his home for 25 years. “If those things go up”—Schulze nods at the enormous tanks a stone’s throw from his porch—“you wouldn’t have time to climb the hills.”
“I’ll be happy to be floating,” said resident Leslie Freres, who often stays on a houseboat. “It is kind of frightening.”
Linnton’s seismic risk is close to home for companies such as BP, Kinder Morgan, NW Natural, the Olympic Pipeline Co., Nu-Star Inc. and Portland & Western Railroad, a subsidiary of Genesee & Wyoming Inc. But the companies are reluctant to talk about their CEI hub facilities.
“We’re trying to reach out to them,” Butsick said. “I’m not sure if we have found the correct people to reach out to yet.”
Only Kinder Morgan responded to requests for comment for this story. An email to the Olympic Pipeline Co., owned and operated by BP Pipelines North America, was not returned. BP’s Pam Brady said she would “email the PR team,” but no response came. A phone call to Portland & Western General Manager Kevin Haugh was not returned.
Melissa Ruiz of Kinder Morgan said her company responds to and coordinates with federal, state and local agencies to ensure safety as part of its normal operations.
“We just had a drill this week in Linnton,” Ruiz said. “We do unannounced drills.”
“We pretty much have to raise our hand and ask permission for everything.”
Ruiz shared a list of inspections, contacts and drills at the Kinder Morgan facilities in Linnton and Willbridge Terminal. The company is in touch with a broad range of public agencies, fire departments, schools, parks, sheriff and police departments, and city and state officials.
But the company shared little about seismic risk, and Ruiz did not answer a question about the age of or retrofitting of Kinder Morgan assets in Linnton.
“[Local] companies aren’t going to tell you all the bad things that could happen,” Cochran said. “We can only just guess, and we can look at what’s happened in other places.”
DOGAMI spokesperson Ryan Hansen said the state senate closed a legal loophole this year that could have been perceived as a reason for energy companies not to reveal seismic risks or potential problems in their facilities.
“There is a gap, and it’s a complex one, between resilience and the current reality,” Hansen wrote. “Action by multiple players … is needed. … Senate Bill 775, which passed in this last session, contributes to that by making any vulnerability assessments, or measures to reduce vulnerability, that are intended to minimize impacts not admissible to prove negligence. For some energy companies, that may have been a barrier.”
An acronym soup of agencies have some role in crisis response (FEMA, DOGAMI, EPA, USDOT, PHMSA, OPDR, ODUC, OPEC, USGC, PBEM, NET, ECHO, LEPC), but it’s not clear how they would respond, or how those efforts would be coordinated.
“There’s a lot of players right there,” said Ryan Ike, spokesman for FEMA Region X, when asked whose job earthquake preparedness is in Linnton.
Risks on rails
It’s not clear whether Portland & Western cars in Linnton carry Bakken crude, but Linnton Neighborhood Association President Shawn Looney and other residents want to know. Looney has recorded varied hazmat placards on Linnton-based railroad cars and tractor-trailer trucks.
“Within the past year,” Looney wrote via email, she had seen diesel fuel, flammable adhesives, flammable alcohols, “Toxic, N.O.S.” [not otherwise specified], alcohols N.O.S, crude oil, butane mixture and gasoline/gasohol.
Last May, federal rules became more stringent for railroad cars carrying hazardous materials, said Gordon Delcambre, spokesperson for the USDOT Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Delcambre said railroads will be required to add a thicker shell on tank cars, security plates on the front and back, greater thermal protection and other safety features depending on how hazardous the cargo is.
When a reporter listed Linnton’s seismic risks—petroleum pipelines, tank farms and hazmat-laden railroad cars—Delcambre replied: “Ouch.”
Delcambre said pipeline operators are “required to determine whether their pipelines are at risk of … earthquakes … and to take appropriate measures to protect their pipeline system.” The company is required to conduct frequent patrols before or during natural hazards, determine if a pipeline is at risk of becoming exposed or damaged and “address any threats to a pipeline’s integrity.”
Meanwhile, many Linntonites fear the worst.
“It’s totally insane to have over 90 percent of our fuel sources located in Linnton Willbridge, which is mostly a liquefaction zone,” said Linnton resident Darise Weller, who also recently started working with local emergency planners. “That’s the fuel source for the entire region, so it’s not only going to affect Linnton when it goes, it will affect the entire area. And it will go.”
“The fire department said to us, ‘In an earthquake, you’re on your own,’ because they won’t be able to get across the bridge to us,” Weller added.
True to form, Cochran sees a silver lining.
“In some ways [Linnton’s] isolation would be a good thing, because we’re a real community, we know our neighbors, everybody knows each other, and I don’t see a sense of lawlessness happening here.”