2013-07-26 / Community

Emotions evident in tar sands debate

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – At the beginning of a South Portland Planning Board public forum Tuesday, July 23, Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser told the audience the board would likely focus on the details of the proposed Waterfront Protection Ordinance. They would not, he said, consider many of emotional issues that have characterized both sides of the debate that surround the possibility of bringing diluted bitumen, commonly called tar sands oil, to South Portland.

“It will probably be a little frustrating to people but we have a pretty narrow job here,” Haeuser said.

The South Portland Planning Board’s task is to evaluate how the proposed Waterfront Protection Ordinance fits with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, updated in October, as well as how it complies with the city’s land use regulations. The proposed ordinance would limit the use of oil facilities on South Portland’s pier in an effort to stop the transportation of tar sands oil to the city.

However, the debate between citizens on either side of the issue – roughly equally represented in the audience of approximately 65 members – quickly grew beyond the detailed scope of the planning board into an emotionally charged discussion.

Individuals on both sides of the issue accused those with the opposite viewpoint of using “fear” to obfuscate the true facts of the issue at hand.

“The citizens of South Portland have been duped. You’ve been lied to and we’re tired of it. We’ve been correcting the misstatements, fear-mongering and rhetoric for many months,” said an emotional Portland Pipe Line Corp. President and Chief Executive Officer Larry Wilson.

South Portland resident Paul Cunningham countered that petroleum companies are using the fear of doom for their business to divert the issue away from the issue of tar sands oil.

“You folks know what the essence of this ordinance proposal is, so don’t buy into the fear this evening,” Cunningham told the planning board. “We don’t want tar sands piped into our community.”

Members of Concerned Citizens of South Portland, a group that wants to block the transportation of tar sands oil into Maine, collected 3,779 signatures in a two-week period in June from citizens in support of their mission to prevent bringing tar sands oil to Casco Bay. They say the substance is more corrosive and more likely to cause a dangerous spill than crude oil, which Portland Pipe Line Corp. has sent from docks in South Portland to Montreal for more than 70 years.

However, a number of representatives from companies on South Portland’s waterfront such as Gulf Oil Ltd. and Sprague Energy said the proposed ordinance would not just hurt Portland Pipe Line Corp., it would potentially have a disastrous effect upon their businesses as well.

The proposed ordinance would specify that petroleum storage tank farms and facilities for storing petroleum would need to be used for petroleum products unloaded from ships docked in South Portland. Additionally, the ordinance would prohibit “enlargement or expansion of existing petroleum storage tank farms and accessory piers.”

The purpose of the language is to ensure there could be no reversal in the flow of oil inside the Portland-Montreal pipeline to bring tar sands oil from Canada to Casco Bay. There is no proposal on the table from Portland Pipe Line Corp. to reverse the flow of the pipeline, but Wilson has previously said he would be open to any possibility that could help protect the future of the company.

Natalie West, who drafted the ordinance language, made a presentation to the planning board explaining why the proposed ordinance would be limited in scope to preventing companies from transporting tar sands oil. Rob Sellin, co-chairman of Concerned Citizens of South Portland, said the language in the proposed ordinance would not hurt any of South Portland’s businesses uninvolved in the tar sands oil debate.

“We do not want your businesses affected in any way by this ordinance,” Sellin said, turning to company representatives in the audience. “They’re important to us. Your jobs are important to us. The only thing we’re cautious about as a community is a change of function.”

Jamie Py, president of Maine Energy Marketers Association, a trade union that represents more than 350 energy companies, gave an example of an unintended consequence the proposed ordinance may have on companies in the area.

Py said when ships dock in South Portland, petroleumbased fuel is mixed together to make gasoline that meets the federal mandate to contain ethanol. However, the petroleum products are not delivered in ships, they are brought in trucks. Therefore, Py said the use would not fit with the proposed ordinance because the facilities are not specifically used to unload petroleum from ships, and gasoline in southern Maine would have to be shipped from other ports, like Searsport or Chelsea, Mass.

“The cost would be phenomenal,” Py said.

Matt Manahan, an attorney for Pierce Atwood LLP representing Portland Pipe Line Corp., said the proposed ordinance would have “breathtaking impacts” on local businesses in the area.

“They are the lifeblood of the South Portland waterfront. They provide many jobs. They are an impetus to the economy and this ordinance would shut them down essentially,” Manahan said.

Members of the planning board asked questions of both parties and adjourned the public forum without any official vote. The board will need to hold another public forum Tuesday, Aug. 13 because an erroneous comma was included in the proposed ordinance the city council reviewed at a first reading, but not in the version authorized by citizens to go to voters.

City attorney Sally Daggett said because the council did not review and send to the planning board the document that will be in front of voters for approval, another workshop will be necessary when the changes have been made.

The planning board has no role in making a decision as to whether to send the proposed ordinance to voters. However, the planning board can form an opinion and make a recommendation to the city council as to whether the proposed ordinance is in line with the city’s comprehensive plan and its land use regulations, a question its members will discuss further at the board’s August meeting.

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