2014-07-04 / Front Page

Tar sands ban on hand

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Official action on a long-awaited zoning proposal designed to keep diluted bitumen, or “tar sands” out of South Portland is nearly at hand.

Following a special city council workshop June 25, at which a three-person Draft Ordinance Committee presented its suggestions – dubbed the “Clear Skies Ordinance” – the ad hoc group met again on Tuesday to address issues raised by City Attorney Sally Daggett. Those concerns, however, will not speed bump a process at play for more than seven months.

The city council had already scheduled a first reading for Monday, July 7, on the zoning amendment, which would ban the “bulk loading of crude oil” anywhere along the South Portland waterfront. Following a public hearing at the July 15 planning board meeting, at which board members will issue a recommendation on passage, the city council is then slated to conduct a final vote on July 21.

“This resolution, if adopted, will impact our city for generations to come,” said Mayor Gerry Jalbert, at the June 25 workshop.

In a press release issued the day of the workshop, the Working Waterfront Coalition, which formed to beat back a similar antitar sands proposal last fall, deemed this latest effort an attempt at “constraining and dismantling all of South Portland’s marine terminal operations.”

In the release, Burt Russell, vice president of operations at Sprague Energy, faulted the Draft Ordinance Committee for appearing to go beyond the charge given to it by the city council, to prevent tar sands from entering South Portland, to banning the export of any form of crude oil from local terminals

“There is no justification for such a prohibition, especially when this product has been safely transported, transloaded and stored on the waterfront for decades,” he said. “This ordinance gives Sprague great concern for the sustainability of businesses on South Portland’s waterfront and the local people they employ.”

However, committee facilitator Jeff Edelstein said the generalized approach was deemed the best way to work within the city’s home rule jurisdiction and adhere to its comprehensive plan, while avoiding specifics that could be negated over time by changes in technology that would allow oil companies to skirt the regulation.

“We were very cognizant of not wanting to impact at all any current use,” said committee member Russell Pierce, referencing 19 meetings totaling more than 60 hours since the group was formed in March. “We never thought we’d have to work so hard to define ‘crude oil.’”

The committee is not done with definitions, however. One of Daggett’s requests is that the committee assign a measurement to “bulk loading.” She also has requested that references to the city’s “broad authority” under home rule be excides, since the state controls much of what can and cannot be done under zoning regulation, simply by allowing zoning at all.

Still, the committee found in its research that shipment of crude oil out of South Portland is a “non-traditional use” along the waterfront that it can limit, said committee member Michael Conathan.However, Jamie Py, president of Maine Energy Marketers Association and spokesman for the Working Waterfront Coalition, held a different view.

“If city councilors can be bullied into believing that exporting goods by ship is not a traditional marine activity and, without any scientific input or justification, ban a perfectly legal product, then the entire working waterfront is under threat,” he said, suggesting that the language of the Clear Skies Ordinance was “delivered directly by activists and environmental organizations.”

Those groups have cited fears that chemical additives used to make diluted bitumen viscous enough to pump through the pipeline from Canada could present a local health risk when burned off upon arrival in South Portland. While Portland Pipe Line Corp. has repeatedly said it “has no plans” to reverse the flow of the pipeline that now sends crude oil to Montreal for refining, it did obtain in 2009 all of the local and state permitting required for a reversal. Most of those permits eventually expired and the company eventually surrendered those that hadn’t, despite previous renewals, as “proof” of its intentions.

According to Jalbert, the city council will hold an up-or-down vote on the proposal. There will be no attempt to pass the decision on to voters, he said Monday.

“A big part of what this is about for the city council is avoiding a nasty, nasty campaign again,” said Jalbert, referring to the citizeninitiated Waterfront Protection Ordinance, which also sought to ban tar sands, failing at the November general election by 192 votes of 8,714 cast.

“That whole campaign, both for and against, was so divisive,” Jalbert said. “You’d just have the same divisiveness this time around, and it might even be worse. The city council is going in the direction that it would approve the new ordinance and that would avoid any need of something going to the citizens, as far as a vote is concerned.”

Although the Waterfront Protection Ordinance battle did drive a wedge in the community – Councilor Tom Blake, who was mayor at the time, has declined comment on reports that someone left a bag of animal feces on his car – more recently, there has been a clear shift in public opinion, at least as evidenced by public participation at meetings. The Draft Ordinance Committee has received wide praise from members of activist group Protect South Portland, including about 200 at last week’s meeting, who wore lightblue T-shirts in support of the Clear Skies Ordinance.

During the June 25 workshop, only two people spoke against the proposed ban on tar sands, of about 30 who stood to have their say. Neither represented Portland Pipe Line Corp., which has been at the center of the storm since late 2012, when environmentalists began to suggest that a then-recent permit application in Canada could lead Portland Pipeline to file anew for a pipeline reversal.

Although the company campaigned heavily against the Waterfront Protection Ordinance, it has remained largely silent since December, when the city adopted a moratorium on any construction needed to import tar sands, and during the subsequent work of the draft ordinance committee. That silence held last week, although Portland Pipeline employees were at the workshop.

“We obviously have concerns with the committee’s recommendations, but will utilize tonight as an opportunity to listen to their presentation and reserve our comments for another time,” said Gillis in a June 25 email to Jalbert. “I didn’t want you to assume our lack of participation this evening was a reflection of us not being interested in the process or its potential consequences.”

Indeed Portland Pipeline is interested enough that, even with the number of working documents posted online, it has filed a request for all communications of the Draft Ordinance Committee under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.

Gillis did not respond to emails or phone calls on Monday, but reports are that he took over for Portland Pipeline Treasurer Dave Cyr in April, while longtime employee Tom Hardison of Scarborough took over for departing CEO Larry Wilson.

Hardison also did not reply to an email inquiry. Calls to Portland Pipeline’s South Portland office were not returned Monday, while company spokesman Jim Merrill could not be reached.

“Tom Hardison told me personally at a meeting two months ago that Larry Wilson and Dave Cyr had ‘retired,’ although I don’t know what that means, exactly,” said Jalbert on Monday.

What the reported change of personnel at Portland Pipeline means for the company’s future remains to be seen. However, members of Protect South Portland say adoption of the Clear Skies Ordinance will help the local economy, even if some local business is lost, because, they say, people will want to live in a city that is focused on quality of life issues.

“This ordinance without a doubt will preserve and protect the tax base of our city,” said Crystal Goodrich, a school teacher and leader of the Protect South Portland movement.

“One thing that has come through clearly, from both the oral as well as the written comments we have received, had been a concern for public health due to air quality,” said David Critchfield, Draft Ordinance Committee member.

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