2014-07-11 / Front Page

SoPo says no

First reading of a zoning amendment designed to block ‘tar sands’ from South Portland passes 6-1

By Duke Harrington

Contributing Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Sixteen months ago, when South Portland held its first public debate on the possibility of diluted bitumen entering the city, nearly 400 people packed into the Nelson Road Community Center to hear about the product popularly known by the pejorative, “tar sands.”

 

It was a record turnout for a City Council meeting — in living memory at least, and quite possibly in the 118 years since South Portland’s incorporation as a distinct municipality.

 

Last week, with the divisive, sometimes acrimonious debate over tar sands nearing an end game of sorts, South Portland set a new attendance record. This time, nearly 500 people packed the same gym where it all started.

 

By the time the four-hour-long meeting was concluded, July 9, 67 people had taken the podium to have a say for and against a zoning amendment designed to block tar sands from flowing through South Portland. If adopted by the City Council, which approved last week’s first reading 6-1, the zoning change would make it illegal to “bulk load” crude oil of any kind onto ships docked anywhere along the city’s waterfront. A ban also would be enacted on construction of equipment needed to facilitate loading.

 

On Tuesday, the planning board had its say, voting 6-1 to recommend that the council pass the ban at its final reading, July 21. That meeting drew about 125 people to the high school lecture hall, where supporters again outnumbered opponents two-to-one.

 

Only planning board member Linda Boudreau voted against the recommendation, speaking at length to at least 15 areas where she felt the measure contradicted South Portland’s comprehensive plan.

 

“There were a number of things that she teased out that a number of people didn’t even recognize, or apply,” said Assistant City Planner Steve Puleo, on Wednesday.

 

Boudreau joins City Councilor Michael Pock as the only public officials in South Portland who have gone on record against plans to block tar sands.

 

“I’m just a common-sense kind of guy. We had an election and we won it. If our vote doesn’t count, what good is it to have votes?” said Pock at the July 9 meeting, referring to a public vote that rejected a similar, citizen-initiated measure last November. That proposal, which would have banned enlargement, expansion or construction of petroleum storage or distribution facilities in South Portland’s shoreland area, as well as its shipyard and commercial zones, was defeated at the polls in November by a mere 192 votes, of 8,714 cast.

 

Pock cited South Portland’s designation as a “Certified Business Friendly” community by the Paul LePage administration, a designation that took two tries to secure. With no actual proposal to ship tar sands through South Portland, there was “no hurry” to disturb the local petroleum industry, he said. The three person ad-hoc committee, created by the council in December and charged with finding a way craft a more targeted ordinance than the one defeated at the polls, had instead created a document that is “doomed to fail,” said Pock.

 

“I’m sorry I’m so negative, but I do not intend to vote for this ordinance,” said Pock.

 

All others on the council echoed in one form or another the sentiments of Councilor Linda Cohen who also sits as head of the South Portland-Cape Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce, a decidedly pro-business post.

 

“Tar sands scare me,” she said. “It’s not that we’re not business friendly, but it comes down for me to the people who are here 24/7 — the people who sleep here, the people live here, and the people who have to deal with whatever the repercussion may be from the businesses that are here.”

 

After Wednesday’s meeting, Mayor Gerard Jalbert commented on the possibility of a citizen’s initiative to overturn the new rules, which he expects to pass July 21, as well as the likelihood of a lawsuit.

 

“I can tell you the advice I’ve received from legal council — you have to show you’ve been harmed,” he said.

 

In 2009, Portland Pipe Line Corp. (PPL) secured state and local permits needed to “reverse the flow” of one of the three lines it now uses to ship crude oil to Montreal refineries, as it has since the line was constructed prior to America’s entry into World War II, to help Canada bypass a German blockade of the Saint Lawrence River.

 

Securing regulatory permission to reverse a line would allow PPL to import diluted bitumen from Canada for shipment to various refineries, in addition to its historic business model, sending crude oil north.

 

However, the 2009 permits eventually expired when the reversal project stalled during the national recession. One air quality permit was renewed with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, but PPL “voluntarily surrendered” that last fall to prove to voters that no imminent plans existed to import tar sands. Since then, no new application has been submitted to the city by PPL

 

“If you haven’t applied for something, you can’t show you’ve been harmed,” said Jalbert. “But that’s on the municipal level. On the bigger picture, someone could raise a lawsuit without any application to the planning board, saying what we are doing is unconstitutional, based on interstate and international commerce.”

 

That said, Jalbert said he “does expect” a citizen’s petition to follow the council’s July 21 vote.

 

“I believe there will be an attempt,” he said. “That would seem a more practical, cost effective approach to me, than a lawsuit. But a good defense is a good offence, and tonight we played offense.”

 

On Team SoPo during Wednesday’s meeting were about 375 people, made of members of local activist group South Portland and other statewide groups, such as Environment Maine. They wore light blue t-shirts replete with clouds and birds to signify their support of the zoning proposal, dubbed the Clear Skies Ordinance by the drafting committee.

 

Like Cohen and her fellow councilors, “blue shirts” cited fear of vapor combustion units used to burn off chemicals that must be added to diluted bitumen in order to make the goopy substance thin enough to pump through the pipeline, following extraction from shale rock in Alberta, Canada.

 

“If we allow cancer-causing chemicals to freely circulate in the environment, somebody is going to get cancer,” said Ocean View Avenue resident Bethany Woodworth.

 

Also on local minds were recent pipeline spills, such as the 2010 leak of bituminous oil near the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, which polluted 40 miles of the waterway. That incident reportedly raised benzene gas levels in the air to 15,000 parts per billion, far above the 500 parts per billion designated as a safe level by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

None of the 50 speakers who voiced support for the “Clear Skies” ban on tar sands noted that what they oppose is completely legal under limits set by Maine law.

However, some of the 125 opponents in the crown, 17 of whom took the mic, pointed out that the draft ordinance committee, despite more than 60 hours of review, never spoke to a state or federal regulatory agency.

“Not one was every consulted,” said Tim Richards, an employee of Sprague Energy, who joined his peers in wearing red t-shirts adorned on with the American flag on the front and the words “SoPo jobs” on the back.

Wednesday’s meeting was scheduled when the regular City Council meeting on Monday drew more people to City Hall than the fire code would allow. During the 30 minutes it took for Jalbert to realize neither side intended to send out enough members to meet safety rules, there “were some confrontations.” he said.

“I must say, I was shocked Monday night to hear one person tell my co-worker, Burt Russell, ‘I hope you get cancer from the products Sprague handles,” said Richards.

Kathryn DiPhilippo, executive director of the South Portland Historical Society, although not speaking in that capacity, said she was welcomed warmly by environmentalists on Monday because, unaware of the blue shirt/red shirt divide, she happened to be wearing blue.

That changed when donned one of the red shirts on Wednesday.

“People started asking where I lived, and demanding to see my driver’s license,” she said.

A continual allegation of the environmental side was that those who wore red shirts were non-residents “paid by big oil” to attend the meetings. Although many were employees of South Portland’s five oil terminals, and most did in fact live in neighboring communities, they ridiculed the idea that they were paid to show up, as well as the contention made by the draft ordinance committee that their jobs are not in jeopardy because no company currently bulk loads crude oil.

Russell, the vice president of operations at Sprague, has often pointed out that his company started out in whale oil.

Bruce Yates of Cape Elizabeth, who manages the Global Petroleum terminal on Clark Road, said he made the same argument to an anti-tar sands volunteer, who showed up at his door looking for donations to help secure pubic support for the Clear Skies Ordinance.

“She was dressed very fashionably and I asked her, what would happen if the stores at the Maine Mall were all restricted only to the styles they had today, but nothing new, and the stores in Portsmouth had no restrictions. Where would she go?”

Yates said he though that “made an impression,” but the young woman still went directly to his neighbor to solicit a donation.

Tom Hardison of Scarborough, a 40-year employee of PPL who was elevated to vice president in April upon the departure of CEO Larry Wilson and Treasurer Dave Cyr, complained that Wednesday’s vote was “pre-ordained.”

“Let’s be honest about what is happening here,” he said. “This effort to prevent oil sands from entering the United States is a first step to shutting down the oil industry in South Portland,” he said.

Both Hardison and Jamie Py, head of the Maine Energy Marketers Association, complained that the draft ordinance committee, from the beginning, was bent on banning on tar sands, rather than understanding the product. Both claimed tar sands in “no different” from regular crude oil. Both also faulted the ordinance proposal for banning the loading of all crude, as a way to get at tar sands, given concern any specific regulations against that alone could be circumnavigated by changes to its chemical make-up.

They, along with PPL attorney Matthew Manahan, called on the council to reject the current ordinance and “reboot” the process.

“We’ve been a good tax-paying citizen with a stellar safety record,” said Manahan. “We think we deserve a real chance to speak honestly on this topic stripped of all the politics surrounding it.”

“This ordinance is not fully thought out and will hurt our working waterfront and our regional economy,” said Hardison. “We want to a process that will address the issue in a fair and meaningful way, and that means a committee that will actually examine the facts and science, rather than producing documents that are clearly based in emotion.”

Still, it was undeniable that emotions were running high at Wednesday’s meeting, as blue shirt after blue shirt rose to cite concerns about potential vapor combustion smokestacks, possible pipeline spills, and money “spent by big oil to confuse and divide us.”

“This is an air quality issue,” said Bob Klotz, a nurse and organizer for environmental group 350 Maine. “Prevention is the most impactful thing we can do and the fact is, despite distortion by the oil industry, this issue has nothing to do with the price of oil or gasoline, or anyone freezing to death, or jobs, unless we don’t take this on, and then the injuries will occur.”

After the meeting, Hardison refused comment while Py said his group is still undecided about launching a petition drive for a countermanding ordinance. There is very little likelihood that any such petition could be completed and approved in time to male the November election anyway, he noted.

Jalbert said he and City Manager Jim Gailey have recently been working with their counterparts across the Fore River to create a 30 to 40 person create “joint waterfront umbrella.”

That group, he said, would coordinate waterfront development in Portland and South Portland. The sad truth, he said, is that PPL is “a company in decline,” which had both driven the current yearlong debate, and will undoubtedly factor into future developments along the waterfront.

Meanwhile, Protect South Portland spokesperson Mary-Jane Ferrier, perhaps counter-intuitively, expressed similar concern about PPL’s future.

“We come in peace,” she said. “We have no beef with anything they are doing now. I’m concerned that they are a business that is sort of going downhill. There’s no question about that and I hope they find some way to use that right-of-way that they have. We just don’t want them to use it for tar sands.”

 

 

 

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