2013-03-15 / Front Page

Crowds speak up for, against tar sands in ‘backyard’

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer


Harold McWilliams of Gorham speaks to city councilors in the community center gymnasium on Monday, March 11 at a public forum concerning oil sands. More than 300 Maine residents attended the forum, dozens of whom spoke publicly to express their opposition to oil sands pipelines or to voice support for the Portland Pipe Line Corporation, the company which may transport the substance in the future. (Jack Flagler photo) Harold McWilliams of Gorham speaks to city councilors in the community center gymnasium on Monday, March 11 at a public forum concerning oil sands. More than 300 Maine residents attended the forum, dozens of whom spoke publicly to express their opposition to oil sands pipelines or to voice support for the Portland Pipe Line Corporation, the company which may transport the substance in the future. (Jack Flagler photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — More than 300 Maine residents, many from South Portland, some from as far away as Damariscotta and Casco, attended a public forum on Monday, March 11 to learn about oil sands that could come through Maine into Casco Bay.

The workshop was hosted by the city council in the community center gymnasium as an informational session to learn more about the controversial substance, also called tar sands or diluted bitumen. But the meeting also served as a sounding board for dozens of residents, who spoke either to express their displeasure at the possibility of oil sands passing underneath their town, or to voice support of the company that may ultimately make the decision to bring them to Maine.

Oil sands are an abundant resource in Alberta, Canada, where companies can extract it from the ground cheaply, but the oil sands have no value if they can’t be transported to ports in Canada and the U.S., and remain available to international markets.

However, environmental groups argue the transportation of those oil sands poses too much of a threat to the lakes, rivers and wetlands along the route of the pipelines. Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine said diluted bitumen is more corrosive than conventional crude oil, and therefore more likely to cause a spill. When it does, Voorhees said, that spill is also harder to clean up because of the chemical make up of oil sands.

Voorhees pointed to an example of an oil sands spill in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in July 2010, which has cost oil companies about $1 billion to date in an ongoing effort to clean up.

The problem with an oil sands spill, Voorhees said, is the bitumen sinks to the bottom of a lake or stream, while the toxic chemicals used to thin the substance float to the top, which makes it impossible to quickly and easily clean the substance out of a lake or river.

Larry Wilson, president of Portland Pipe Line Corp. and a Cape Elizabeth resident, said the company is not considering plans to reverse the course of the pipeline and bring oil sands to Maine from Canada. However, if such an opportunity does arise, he would like the ability to pursue the idea.

“It’s not a given that we’ll be able to continue to do what we do today,” Wilson said.“We have to pursue new opportunities for our very valuable assets.”

Ted O’Meara, a spokesman for Portland Pipe Line, said there would have to be a business reason for the company to pursue oil sands.

“If they ever did have a plan they would communicate very openly with pipeline neighbors, communities and the public,” O’Meara said.

Some studies performed by Canadian and American researchers have concluded that oil sands are more dangerous than conventional crude oil, while others, including a recent study from the U.S. State Department, have said neither substance is more dangerous than the other.

John Quinn of the New England Petroleum Council said Voorhees attempted to “demonize” oil companies by giving a skewed version of the facts. Some of the attendees attempted to shout down Quinn during his comments on the state department’s study, yelling “corporate lap dogs” and “The EPA is corrupt.”

Mayor Tom Blake calmed the restless crowd after Quinn finished speaking.

“The purpose of this workshop is to get as much information as possible. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with all that information,” Blake said.

The Natural Resources Council of Maine has concerns about the oil sands pipeline that go beyond the possibility of a spill. Voorhees said Portland Pipe Line will need to build two 70-foot smokestacks on a pier near Bug Light Park that would emit “volatile organic compounds” and affect the city’s air quality.

The smokestack would be necessary, according to an informational sheet the Natural Resources Council of Maine handed out to attendees, “to let off the heat and vapors associated with tar sands transport.”

Not all attendees of the meeting came to oppose oil sands transport. Some residents showed their appreciation and support for Portland Pipe Line Corp., which O’Meara called a “responsible company and a good corporate citizen” in an interview before the meeting.

Sean Petty works for Moran Shipping Agencies, Inc. in Portland. He said the Portland Pipe Line has made a “positive impact” not just to its own employees but all those who make a living on the waterfront.

“If pumping oil safely in my backyard brings jobs revenue and possible worldwide exposure, then by all means I support it,” Petty said.

But Luke Greco, a student at Maine College of Art in Portland, said the issue is not with Portland Pipe Line’s reputation, but with the substance it would be sending through the ground.

“It’s not an issue of integrity as a company, as much as whether we want to bring this product to South Portland harbor and burn it off in smoke stacks,” Greco said.

The council took no official action Monday night during the meeting. Voorhees said his main goal was to educate city officials and members of the public about the dangers of oil sands, but he would welcome a resolution opposing the oil sands from the city, similar to those passed in Waterford, Casco and Bethel.

Voorhees also said he would welcome support of a petition endorsed by legislators Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud that encourages President Obama to conduct a full environmental review of the oil sands pipeline.

U.S. law requires an environmental review for new pipelines, but oil companies have argued this case does not apply because the pipeline from Portland to Montreal already exists. The only change would be the direction of the flow and the substance transported.

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