Toxic Vapors Could Kill Thousands If an Earthquake Were to Hit Portland, Report Says, Prompting Calls for Regulation

It almost feels as though the amount of natural disasters is starting to climb as time goes on, and that’s because it is. Climate change has done its part so that natural disasters are becoming more of a constant than they have ever been. Thankfully, we have the technology to be able to predict a majority of these natural disasters (as well as their severity) fairly early.  The biggest exceptions, though, are earthquakes.

UPDATE: Portland Residents Demand Action To Avoid Toxic Catastrophe Along The Willamette River

Earthquakes are utterly unpredictable. Many scientists are hopeful that perhaps one day we’ll be able to predict the occurrence of earthquakes with enough time for evacuations, most scientists are pessimistic about the idea, and some claim it’s outright impossible. Because of this, we often find ourselves needing to prepare for a natural disaster that we’re not sure will ever come and with a severity we can’t possibly know. Without a high level of uncertainty.

That’s where we get to the topic of Portland, Oregon. There has not been an earthquake lately, but seismologists have said that there is a 37% chance that a 7.1 magnitude or higher earthquake will happen along the Oregon and Washington coast within the next 50 years. So, why does this extremely vague prediction matter? Well, according to a Portland State research report commissioned by Multnomah County, if there was one of substantial magnitude, it could leave thousands dead and injured.

If a massive earthquake hit Portland, people would be dying from collapsing buildings, the shaking, and downed power lines. The death toll would be significant, but there is something that would only add onto it; it’s a threat that could kill thousands and leave tens of thousands injured: toxic vapors.

According to the report, a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake would rupture the tanks and pressurized cylinders that store toxic chemicals within industrial facilities. The ones especially at risk are those facilities built on liquefiable soil in the city’s north and northwest neighborhoods. If these tanks and cylinders were to rupture, we’d see toxic plumes emitted that would spread across the county and even over its borders. Just in case you aren’t aware, by the way: there are over 1,100 industrial facilities in Multnomah County alone, and many of them are located near residential areas. 70 of these facilities were identified last year by the county as posing the highest risk. This is because not only ade the toxic materials in a large abundance and fairly volatile, but the facilities also tend to sit on loose, sandy soils that will give out when an earthquake hits.

The most dangerous facility we’d be looking at is the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub. It’s a fossil fuel terminal placed along the Willamette River, and it’s where more than 90% of Oregon’s gas and diesel is stored. Not just the country or the city, but the entire state. The vapors from their ruptured tanks, when mixed in with the plumes of toxic chemicals from other industrial facilities, would make for a deadly airborne combination that would be near impossible for residents to avoid. We’re talking about chemicals such as ammonia, chlorine, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, diesel, and sulfuric acid all mixing together, among many other toxic chemicals. Many of these chemicals alone can cause death if one is exposed to too much of it, and even medical-grade masks are unable to offer you any protection from them. These situations call for genuine gas masks.

What’s worse is that many of these facilities have not undergone any seismic retrofits. If they were hit, the consequences would be ginormous. We already have assumptions as to what being struck by an earthquake would possibly mean for the county.

The Portland State report focused on four major high-risk facilities, and researchers got to work modeling the two worst-case scenarios going by the average wind speeds and directions during the summer and winter. Earthquake magnitude was considered, and instead they used the buildings’ construction date as a proxy for the vulnerability of the tanks and canisters that held toxic substances. After all, older buildings are least likely to survive the power of an earthquake. You can also assume that the more powerful an earthquake is, the worse the damage is going to be.

Anyhow, the reason why the seasons are important is because the wind direction will blow the plumes of toxic gas into different areas depending on the time of year, which greatly affects how many people may get injured. If an earthquake occurred during the summer, where wind tends to blow from the northwest to the southeast, researchers believe that exposure to the chemicals will lead to more than 2,500 deaths and 17,000 injuries. If the earthquake occurred during the winter, where wind typically blows from the southeast to the northeast, it would lead to more than 1,100 deaths and 18,000 injuries.

Remember that this is just from four facilities alone. Imagine an extremely powerful earthquake that damaged many more facilities; the destruction would be unfathomable.

One of the things that also needs to be addressed is the fact that these companies are meant to keep emergency response plans. This is mandatory for facilities that are housing such large quantities of hazardous materials, so you would think that would make things safer, right? Well, despite the fact that they’re meant to keep a multitude of emergency response plans, none of them address what to do in the event an earthquake causes the release of toxic chemicals.

Not to mention, information on these facilities are relatively low. They only reveal what they need to with the Oregon State Fire Marshal office, such as locations, chemicals stored, and how much is being kept. The general public is unlikely to find this information out for themselves, as well as response plans they might have, because companies fear a leak in information could lead to sabotage or terrorism. Because of this, we can’t really know the true extent of damage in the case of a disaster, nor what these facilities can do if their infrastructure fails to contain toxic plumes.

It’s a relatively concerning situation overall, but that’s why many are pushing for regulation. As of now, Governor Tina Kotek is fully aware of the Portland State report after being sent a letter by county chair Vega Pederson. According to the governor’s press secretary, she’s assessing its findings, but we don’t have much other than that just yet.

Because of the Portland State report, many are hoping it will spark action from the state and local jurisdictions. “The average person in their house doesn’t have the ability to protect themselves from risks like these,” said Jessica Vega Pederson, a Multnomah County Chairperson, “so it’s incumbent upon us and the government to take the steps to make sure we are being protective.”

Last year, Senate Bill 1567 was passed, which required fossil-fuel storage companies in Multnomah’s energy hub to evaluate their tanks’ vulnerability in the event of an earthquake and to make plans to minimize harm to the public. This shows that there is precedent for regulation. We just need to build off of it before nature decides to throw us a curveball.


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