2014-07-11 / Front Page

City Council gets stuck on tar sands

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

A council vote on an anti-tar sands measure was postponed until a larger venue could be found after members of the Working Waterfront Coalition (in red shirts) and Protect South Portland (in blue shirts) filled the council chambers (courtesy photo by Michael Cuzzi) A council vote on an anti-tar sands measure was postponed until a larger venue could be found after members of the Working Waterfront Coalition (in red shirts) and Protect South Portland (in blue shirts) filled the council chambers (courtesy photo by Michael Cuzzi) SOUTH PORTLAND — The first reading of an ordinance designed to ban diluted bitumen — more popularly known as “tar sands” — from South Portland had to be postponed Monday when an overflow crowd refused to obey the maximum occupancy rating for council chambers.

According to Fire Chief Kevin Guimond, local fire codes limit council chambers at city hall to 96 people. Although an exact count was difficult to determine, several estimates made by city officials and others at Monday’s City Council meeting put the number of people crowded into the chamber, and in the hallways and stairwells on either side of it, at “more than 200.” There were even more people milling in groups outside the building.

“We can’t have a meeting like this,” Mayor Gerard Jalbert announced to the room at the meeting’s 7 p.m. start time. “The fire department has told us, basically, they have to shut us down if we continue.”

Jalbert asked members of the crowd to voluntarily sort themselves out, with preference for seats in the meeting hall given to South Portland residents and taxpayers. Others, he said, could watch the meeting on a live broadcast from a conference room in the City Hall basement. Those people, he said, would be allowed in the room one at a time, or in small groups, to ask questions and make statements at the appropriate time.

However, after 30 minutes, the chamber was still over capacity. With people for and against the proposed Clear Skies Ordinance refusing to budge, Jalbert gaveled the meeting into session long enough for a unanimous vote to postpone all items on the agenda relating to tar sands. The balance of the regularly scheduled session continued once the room finally cleared.

In addition to the “Clear Skies” zoning amendment, the council also was scheduled to vote on lifting a moratorium on waterfront construction relating to tar sands transport, enacted in December and renewed in April.

On Tuesday morning, City Clerk Susan Mooney posted notice that the tar sands items would be taken up at a special meeting to be held Wednesday in the gymnasium the South Portland Community Center.

Because Wednesday’s meeting occurred after the deadline for this week’s Sentry, coverage will appear on the newspaper’s website (www.sentry.mainelymediallc.com), and in next week’s print edition.

Monday’s postponement was largely the result of a standoff between opposing sides in the local tar sands debate, at odds since June 2013, when members of the activist group Protect South Portland petitioned for a similar ban, known as the Waterfront Protection Ordinance. That proposal was defeated at the polls in November by just 192 votes of 8,714 cast.

Protect South Portland fears that permit applications filed in Canada by oil giant Embridge since November 2012 could lead to use of the 236-mile-long Montreal-to-South Portland pipeline to import tar sands, a product often referred to by former vice president Al Gore as “the dirtiest fuel on the planet.”

Squeezed from Alberta shale, tar sands must be infused with a blend of chemicals — the exact mixture is a closely guarded proprietary secret — in order to make it viscous enough to push through the pipeline.

Local residents have cited fears of a potential pipeline rupture creating an environmental disaster, as well as concern over the vapor combustion units needed to burn off the additives before tar sands can be moved from local terminals onto ships in port, for final shipment to refineries.

Portland Pipe Line Corp has said repeatedly it “has no plans” to move tar sands. However, it did obtain permits for VCU smokestacks in 2009. While municipal permits eventually expired as the project stalled during the national recession, a state air quality control permit remained in effect, and was even renewed. Portland Pipe Line finally moved to “voluntarily surrender” the permit last fall, once word got out that it remained in effect.

Although the permit would have made Portland Pipe Line operate within state standards for air quality, the Blue Skies Ordinance references local sentiment that no additional vapor combustion units should be built in South Portland at all.

Members of the Working Waterfront Coalition, a consortium of oil-related businesses in and around South Portland, along with their employees and other boosters, arrived early for Monday’s meeting, claiming nearly 80 of the available seats. The group formed last year to fight the Waterfront Protection Ordinance, based on a presumption that its language cast too wide a net and could cripple future innovation, putting many local firms at risk.

At Monday’s meeting Working Waterfront supporters wore red T-shirts with an American flag on the front and the words “SoPo jobs” on the back. They refused to heed Jalbert’s call for locals only, some saying those who did not live in South Portland still counted as taxpayers because they hold jobs in the city. Plus, they were there first.

Meanwhile, members of Protect South Portland and other area environmental groups, dressed in light blue T-shirts to signal support for the Clear Skies Ordinance, stood around the room, similarly refusing to leave based on the assertion that they, and not the industry employees, counted as locals.

Many on both sides faulted the city council for not anticipating the turnout.

The first council workshop on the tar sands issue, held at the community center in March 2013, drew nearly 400 people. Subsequent council meetings — when it voted in August 2013 to send the Waterfront Protection Ordinance to voters, and last month when it held a workshop on the Clear Skies do-over — were held at Mahoney Middle School. Those sessions drew more than 200 people, each. Additionally, the basement overflow area had to be used twice at council hearings last fall, while the council chamber was packed to capacity at many other meetings leading up to last November’s vote.

However, while six of the seven city councilors opposed the Waterfront Protection Ordinance, out of fear for, in the words of Councilor Linda Cohen, “unintended consequences,” all seven have voiced opposition to tar sands.

In December, the council created a three-person Draft Ordinance Committee and tasked it to find a way to block the flow of tar sands that is specific enough to target that product alone. The proposal would have to be fashioned without overstepping municipal jurisdiction — based on the U.S. Constitution’s interstate commerce clause – and other state and federal regulations that trump city zoning.

During the course of more than 60 hours of meetings conducted by the ad hoc committee, members of the Working Waterfront Coalition were largely absent, with only a few representatives at early sessions, and none at all later on. Even the Protect South Portland side began to thin as time wore on.

With fewer than a dozen die-hard activists at the final committee meeting last week, Jalbert said the council presumed a larger venue would not be necessary.

“Honestly, we never really anticipated this kind of turnout,” he said.

For their part, red-shirts in the audience said they simply “out-organized” the blue shirts, showing up en masse when it counted most.

“We’re disappointed that the oil industry came in at the eleventh-hour with people who don’t live in our city to shut down the city council’s meeting,” said Mary Jane Ferrier, spokesman for Protect South Portland, in a statement posted to the group’s website on Tuesday.

“It’s simply disrespectful of the council, the Draft Ordinance Committee, and all of us who came out tonight, as we’ve been doing for more than a year, to raise our concerns about air pollution from towering tar sands smokestacks next to Bug Light [Park],” said South Portland resident Cathy Chapman, also quoted in the release.

However, the Working Waterfront Coalition released its own statement Tuesday, in which it claimed industry workers don’t have that kind of time.

“The men and women of South Portland’s waterfront often put in 70 to 80 hours a week to ensure the businesses there remain a reliable source of jobs, innovation and the region’s link to American and world energy markets,” said Burt Russell, vice president of operations at Sprague Energy. “These folks don’t have the luxury of attending months and months of public hearings and meetings. But they do know a bad ordinance when they see one. And they know this one puts their jobs at risk. That’s why they turned out in force to oppose it tonight.”

If adopted, the Clear Skies Ordinance would ban the “bulk loading of crude oil” anywhere along the South Portland waterfront, along with construction of any equipment needed to load ships with crude oil. Jeff Edelstein, hired by the city to lead the Draft Ordinance Committee, has explained this generalized approach was deemed the best way to work within the city’s home rule jurisdiction, and adhere to its comprehensive plan, while also avoiding specifics that could be negated over time by changes in technology that might allow oil companies to skirt more specific rules.

The ordinance is nominally aimed at Portland Pipe Line Corp., and fears it might “reverse the flow” of its pipeline. For more than 70 years, PPL’s three pipelines, only one of which is currently in active use, have pumped crude oil north to Montreal.

However, members of the Working Waterfront Coalition have renewed their claim that broad attempts at regulation aimed to curb PPL activity will put a stranglehold on all local businesses that trade in petroleum products.

“Like any business, if the terminals can’t evolve and grow, they’ll slowly die. And that means hundreds, if not thousands, of local waterfront jobs are in jeopardy,” said Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, quoted in the same release. “City councilors should be asking themselves why, in a time of political instability in international energy markets, they would voluntarily remove the port of South Portland from playing an essential role in America’s energy future? Why would they guarantee that southern Maine remains a distant observer of America’s energy revolution rather than the beneficiary of it?”

However, the Working Waterfront Coalition did leave the door cracked for compromise, saying it “urges council members to amend [the Clear Skies Ordinance] to prohibit only the loading of Canadian oil sands crude,” rather than all crude oil.

Some members of Protect South Portland have called the compromise a trap that would run afoul of the interstate commerce laws the proposal hopes to skirt, thus enabling a court fight many expect to come anyway. People for and against the zoning change argued Monday that loading ships with crude oil from the pipeline is and is not essentially the same activity as offloading crude and piping it north.

Meanwhile, some industry members, while declining to be named, have suggested Portland Pipe Line Corp. could have a hard row to hoe, regardless. Current managers of the company have declined to comment on its health or future prospects. However, CEO Larry Wilson and Treasurer Dave Cyr both left the organization in April.

If PPL should fail to find ways to increase revenue — Wilson had said the pipeline has run at less than 60 percent capacity for several years — that would be fine with Mussey Street resident Greg Lewis, who called South Portland’s waterfront “a tourist area of a tourist state.”

“I’m sure it would be filled up pretty quickly with some commercial development that would provide more than a few dozen jobs,” he said, referring to the presumed number of local employees at Portland Pipe Line.

“Those of you really interested in jobs, I think you’d be showing Portland Pipe Line the door,” he told the council.

Return to top