2013-09-27 / Front Page

Tar sands issue divides commiunity

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer


Barry Zuckerman of Protect South Portland announces the support of 216 businesses behind the Waterfront Protection Ordinance at a press conference in front of J.P. Thornton’s café and deli Wednesday, Sept. 18. (Jack Flagler photo) Barry Zuckerman of Protect South Portland announces the support of 216 businesses behind the Waterfront Protection Ordinance at a press conference in front of J.P. Thornton’s café and deli Wednesday, Sept. 18. (Jack Flagler photo) SOUTH PORTLAND – The proposed Waterfront Protection Ordinance has divided South Portland residents into opposing sides which, if not exactly equal in numbers, are equal in passion and fervor.

Supporters say the proposed ordinance is the best recourse for the city to prevent oil companies from piping in toxic tar sands oil to the docks of South Portland, preserving clean air and clean drinking water for generations to come.

Opponents say there is no proposal to bring tar sands oil to the city, and the WPO would cripple industry on the waterfront, killing jobs, depleting the city’s tax base and raising the cost of gasoline and heating oil in the region.


Charles Lawton, an economist with Planning Decisions, announces the result of a study analyzing the economic impact of the Waterfront Protection Ordinance. Lawton said if petroleum terminals close, Maine would lose 5,600 jobs and more than $252 million in income. Additionally, according to the report, the cost of fuel and heating oil would rise 10 cents per gallon. (Jack Flagler photo) Charles Lawton, an economist with Planning Decisions, announces the result of a study analyzing the economic impact of the Waterfront Protection Ordinance. Lawton said if petroleum terminals close, Maine would lose 5,600 jobs and more than $252 million in income. Additionally, according to the report, the cost of fuel and heating oil would rise 10 cents per gallon. (Jack Flagler photo) Both sides accuse the other of using scare tactics to incite fear in voters, obfuscate facts and pursue a hidden agenda.

With the city’s residents and workers divided, it should be no surprise that the city’s four council candidates are also split on the issue of the controversial ordinance.

Mayor Tom Blake, who is running for reelection to the council in November, is one of the most prominent and visible supporters of the WPO. In June, Blake became one of more than 3,500 South Portland residents to sign the petition to qualify the proposed ordinance for November’s ballot.

In an interview Monday, Sept. 23, Blake said the WPO “has great vision” and “protects the health and safety of South Portland’s residents.” While Blake said he expects the issue to affect the council race, he encouraged South Portland voters to look beyond one issue when making their decision on council candidates.

“I would encourage people to look at the candidates overall. Don’t support a candidate on any one issue – in any race on any issue. It’s best for any community now and in the future to never make a decision on one issue alone,” Blake said.

Carol Thorne, a former member of the South Portland planning board running for the council, opposed Blake’s opinion on the WPO. Thorne said she believes the proposed ordinance, if enacted, could seriously impair waterfront business to the point that it would damage the character of the city as a whole.

“I’ve lived here now for 30 years. I think it’s a great city, and I don’t want to see the heritage that we’ve earned from that waterfront be destroyed. The way the ordinance is written right now, that could happen,” Thorne said.

Maxine Beecher, who seeks a return to the council after serving the maximum of three consecutive terms through 2012, also opposes the ordinance. Beecher was instrumental in creating the city’s comprehensive plan, and said she believes the WPO focuses on the comprehensive plan’s vision statement without adhering to other sections. However, Beecher said the divide the WPO has created in South Portland is the biggest issue for her.

“I think the saddest part for me is it’s definitely going to split the community. I don’t think that’s necessarily a healthy thing. I wish the issue had been brought to the council, where concerns could have been addressed in a more direct way,” Beecher said.

Council candidate and school board member Richard Matthews agreed. He said he still has not fully made up his mind about his personal opinion on the ordinance and he is “sensitive to both sides,” but he is more concerned about the rift it has caused. Matthews added his role as a councilor, if elected, will be to support whichever decision the voters make.

“I think this whole situation needs a dose of cooperation,” Matthews said.

The WPO will be one of two ballot questions in front of South Portland voters this fall along with the $14 million public works facility. Voters also will choose candidates for two at-large council seats and one contested race on the board of education.

Meanwhile, less than two months before voters will make a decision on the proposed ordinance Tuesday, Nov. 5, organizers on both sides of the issue focused their attention on the economic impact the WPO would have upon businesses in the city.

Protect South Portland, the citizens’ group working to pass the ordinance, announced Wednesday, Sept. 18, that 216 South Portland businesses are backing the effort to pass the WPO in November. The businesses signed a letter which stated, “pumping tar sands through South Portland isn’t worth our drinking water, air quality and special places.”

The list of businesses whose owners signed the letter include a number of restaurants, such as J.P. Thornton’s, Taco Trio, Docks Seafood and Elsmere BBQ & Woodgrill.

Tom Howard, the owner of J.P. Thornton’s, said at a press conference outside his restaurant Wednesday morning that South Portland residents “can’t afford to jeopardize” the welfare of their city.

“Everyone in South Portland has a right to drink clean water and breathe clean air,” Howard said.

However, the list of business owners who signed the letter of support did not include any operators of the city’s waterfront petroleum terminals. Many representatives from that industry were present at a press conference at Sprague Energy Monday, Sept. 23, whenthe Maine Energy Marketers Association presented the results of a study written by economist Charles Lawton of Planning Decisions.

In the report, Lawton says the “loss of the oil tanker, terminal and pipeline business would be a devastating blow to the ports of South Portland and Portland.” According to Lawton, closing the existing oil distribution system and replacing it with a truck and highway system would cost Maine a total of 5,600 jobs and $252 million in net earnings.

Additionally, the 12-page report says fuel oil and gasoline prices would rise by 10 cents a gallon in a “trucking-only” system according to a “very conservative” estimate.

Rob Sellin, co-chairman of Protect South Portland, said the study is based on the assumption the city’s entire waterfront operations would be shut down, a premise he called “outrageous.”

“There is nothing in this ordinance that prohibits what (petroleum companies) do now,” Sellin said.

Don Johnson is the president of Phoenix Welding, a company that is involved in maintenance, repair and construction of petroleum piping systems.

He wrote in a letter to South Portland’s Economic Development Committee that the proposed ordinance has already affected his company’s bottom line.

“Three projects in South Portland amounting to $1.5 million in work for Phoenix Welding and our partners have already been shut down because of the constraints of the proposed Waterfront Protection Ordinance,” Johnson wrote in the letter.

“These were projects that had received the green light and would be underway today if it were not for the WPO.”

According to Blake, the supposed effect of the WPO has been overstated by those in the petroleum industry. He said the petroleum industry is relatively stable, has been in South Portland a long time, and he pledged to continue support for current operations.

However, he encouraged businesses to read the text of the ordinance instead of being frightened by potential consequences he sees as unrealistic.

“The petroleum industry is misinterpreting the ordinance in an effort to get other businesses on their side. I would encourage businesses not to follow that route,” Blake said.

Sellin noted Sprague Energy applied for a Natural Resources Protection Act permit as recently as Sept. 11 to reroute pipeline across a pipe trestle structure, an action he said is completely permissible under the proposed rules of the WPO

“They’re lying. They’re saying they’re shutting down the projects, and that’s not happening,” Sellin said.

Bert Russell, vice president of operations at Sprague Energy, said in a phone interview the pipeline at the terminal will not be routed across the trestle structure until there is more certainty about the WPO.

At Monday’s press conference, Russell said the WPO significantly impacts any company that handles petroleum along the waterfront.

“I wouldn’t be here if not for that,” Russell said.

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