2013-04-12 / Front Page

Local officials react to tar sand spill in Arkansas

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

The Portland-Montreal Pipeline carries crude oil from the docks in South Portland through the Sebago Lakes region, into New Hampshire and Vermont before it reaches Montreal, Canada. (Jack Flagler photo) The Portland-Montreal Pipeline carries crude oil from the docks in South Portland through the Sebago Lakes region, into New Hampshire and Vermont before it reaches Montreal, Canada. (Jack Flagler photo) SOUTH PORTLAND – A pipeline carrying heavy crude oil from Canada’s oil sands region ruptured in Arkansas on March 29 in what environmental advocates say could be a sign of things to come in Maine if the substance is pumped through the Sebago Lakes region to Portland harbor.

Last month, a piece of Exxon Mobil’s Pegasus pipeline developed a leak in Mayflower, Ark., a town of 2,300 located 25 miles north of Little Rock. Thousands of barrels of oil spilled into the surrounding neighborhood, causing the evacuation of 22 nearby homes.

The Pegasus pipeline links a refinery in Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico. Exxon Mobil received a permit to reverse the flow of the pipeline and begin transporting Canadian diluted bitumen, also called tar sands, in 2006. The company did not provide a reason for what caused the spill, reporting only that the cause is under investigation.

Emily Figdor, director of Environment Maine, said the Arkansas spill should serve as a warning to Maine residents.

“I think it shows tragically that tar sands pipelines are not safe, and that’s critically important as a project to bring tar sands through Maine is contemplated. There are a lot of similarities to the pipeline that burst in Arkansas and the one considered to come through the Sebago Lake watershed,” she said.

The Portland-Montreal Pipeline currently transports conventional crude oil from Portland harbor to Canada. The pipeline is owned by a South Portland company, Portland Pipe Line Corp., which has transported oil through the pipeline without a spill for more than 70 years.

Portland Pipe Line CEO Larry Wilson said at a March 11 public forum in South Portland there is no current proposal on the table for the company to reverse the flow of its pipeline and transport oil sands. However, if an opportunity were to present itself, Wilson said the company would consider a switch.

Ted O’Meara, a spokesman for Portland Pipe Line Corp., said he wouldn’t speculate on the cause of the Arkansas spill before Exxon Mobil releases the results of its investigation, but he said the substance itself inside the pipeline likely did not cause the leak.

“It’s unlikely the composition of the oil in the line had anything to do with the spill, but we simply don’t know,” O’Meara said.

A report released in February by British oil company Penspen Limited and a study by the U.S. State Department in March each said oil sands were no more dangerous than conventional crude oil.

However, Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine said the Mayflower spill and a spill from an Enbridge pipeline in Kalamazoo, Mich. in July show oil companies “don’t have a handle” on how to effectively transport oil sands.

“It’s unwise to send tar sands through Maine, and ridiculous to consider doing that without a full environmental impact review,” Voorhees said.

Environmental groups and some Maine lawmakers,including Congressmen Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, have called on President Barack Obama to conduct an environmental review to issue Portland Pipe Line Corp. a permit to transport oil sands from Canada to South Portland.

Wilson has argued the permitting and review process is not necessary because oil sands have not proven to be more dangerous than conventional crude. Therefore, the reversal of the pipeline is not a significant enough change in use to require the review.

“Any oil that’s accepted first has to meet (Portland Pipe Line’s) specifications. Once it comes in, it’s tested further, whether it’s light medium or heavy crude,” O’Meara said.

“They have transported all those grades of oil safely for many years, and they’re not going to put anything in the pipeline it’s not designed to safely handle.”

However, Voorhees said the Pegasus pipeline did not show any safety concerns before the spill, unlike the pipeline in Michigan, which had problems he said Enbridge ignored.

“I just don’t think our pipeline safety framework in this country is designed to ensure that pipelines are actually safe,” Voorhees said.

South Portland Mayor Tom Blake leaned toward supporting the call for an environmental impact review, although he said he could not gauge the city council’s opinion on the matter until councilors have a chance to meet in a workshop to discuss the issue.

Blake said the federal review could “take the heat off” Portland Pipe Line because many questions would be answered should the pipeline’s safety standards hold up to the review. It also would help the community avoid what he called a “double negative” that would result if the city prematurely passes legislation, further dividing residents in an already controversial topic and leaving the city open to potential lawsuits.

“It would behoove us as leaders to have the report in front of us. I believe that’s proper government, to have all the facts,” Blake said.

The long-term impacts of the Pegasus spill are still unclear, according to environmental groups.

As of Wednesday, April 10, many residents in the evacuated area still had not returned to their homes. Many expressed concern about plummeting property values to local news station KHTV, although Exxon Mobil has promised to cover all the clean up costs of the spill.

Voorhees and Figdor both said businesses in the area could feel a long-term economic impact, but it’s too early to definitively say what those consequences will be. Regardless, environmental groups say this is not a situation Maine wants to see in the future.

“It’s certainly a lesson we need to learn from or we’ll repeat it,” Voorhees said.

Return to top