2014-08-22 / Front Page

City to solicit defense funds

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Convinced that a recent vote to ban diluted bitumen, or “tar sands,” from South Portland will prompt a costly industry lawsuit, city councilors have agreed to solicit donations for a legal defense fund.

The council voted unanimously Monday to set up the fund and ask for donations from individuals and environmental groups. Any money donated to the defense pool will be deposited into South Portland’s existing legal reserve fund, said Finance Director Greg L’Heureux, who described it as a “reserve within the reserve.” That fund has $89,345 — not nearly enough to cover attorney fees if events unfold as expected.

Several times during an Aug. 11 council workshop where the idea of taking donations was first proposed, Mayor Jerry Jalbert referenced a recent battle over public access to Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport.

“That was a local issue and still almost a million dollars was spent on legal defense there,” he said. “My overall concern is, these things can get very expensive very quickly. If we spend a lot of tax dollars on this, this ordinance can lose community support. I think we have to be very careful of that.”

By establishing the dedicated fund, councilors hope to avoid drawing the ire of city residents, already deeply divided over the year-long tar sands debate, by having to raise taxes to defend the so-called Clear Skies Ordinance.

That zoning amendment, passed by the council 6-1 at a July 21 meeting, bans bulk loading of all crude oil onto ships anywhere along the South Portland waterfront, as well as the construction of infrastructure needed for that purpose.

“At any point, 49 to 51 percent of the residents of this city are opposed to this ordinance and they are not going to want their tax dollars spent defending it,” said Linda Cohen, adding, “I’ve already begun to receive some comment in that regard.”

Local activists began the drive to block tar sands in early 2014, fearing that Portland Pipe Line Corp., which normally pumps crude oil up its 236-mile long pipeline for processing in Montreal, might reverse the flow of the line and begin importing tar sands crude, squeezed from shale rock in Alberta. Because a host of chemicals such as benzene are added to tar sands in order to make the thick, goopy substance thin enough to push through a pipeline — chemicals which would need to be burned off on arrival in South Portland — activists have raised red flags over air quality concerns.

Unable to overstep federal prerogatives on international trade, South Portland took a more general approach. But that has left seven petroleum companies operating along the South Portland waterfront fuming, based on the belief that the council has crippled their ability to respond to the marketplace. None currently load crude oil onto ships, and deal instead primarily in refined products. However, that doesn’t mean they may not want to at some point, and the new rules block unrefined oil of any kind, even if not derived from tar sands.

The ban went into effect Aug. 11, a fact noted by Jalbert during that night’s workshop meeting.

“A lot of doom and gloom was predicted,” he said, “but to the best of my knowledge no job losses took place today on the South Portland waterfront.”

The deadline also passed Monday for submission of a citizens’ petition to overturn the new ordinance. Even so, the dust has yet to settle on the tar sands ban, and a lawsuit to overturn it is predicted.

“My God, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I read in the papers and I hear on the radio the fact that the oil companies are gearing up,” Councilor Maxine Beecher told her peers.

More telling are internal indications that legal action is imminent, Beecher said, noting that Portland Pipe Line Corp. has “been asking for information from our city computers.”

At the same time, City Manager Jim Gailey said he has been fielding “daily” requests for documents from pipeline attorney Matt Manahan, filed under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.

“Every weekday this attorney sends a letter to Jim, and copies me, and says he wants everything from the day before,” said city attorney Sally Daggett.

“We know without question there is going to be some kind of lawsuit,” Beecher said.

Luckily, she added, several environmental groups, including the Conservation Law Foundation, have indicated they are interested in joining the battle on South Portland’s behalf, hence the need for a legal defense fund to which they can contribute.

“If we don’t have a vehicle or them to help with this, then we’re in the soup,” Beecher said.

Although the council was unanimous about the need to create the new fund, it has been less sanguine about soliciting funds for it. There has been talk of creating a city Webpage for collecting donations via credit and debit cards.

“I’m a little uncomfortable with that,” said Councilor Melissa Linscott. “It feels a little awkward to be directing city staff to actively go out and solicit the money. It doesn’t fell like our place to do that to me for some reason.”

While he supported creating the defense fund, Councilor Tom Blake, alone among his peers, predicted it would never need to be tapped.

“I’m not convinced we’re going to be sued,” he said. “To even have discussion about being sued is like saying, ‘OK, we’ve done something wrong, come and sue us.’ Well, I don’t think we’ve done anything wrong. We were transparent about everything and we had a every legal right to do what we did.”

That said, Blake said reaching out to Portland Pipe Line to try and mend fences, to see how the city can help secure the company’s future short of allowing it to deal in tar sands, might be more than good public relations. It might make a good legal strategy.

“That will be a feather in our cap if we do get sued,” he said. “If we do go to court, the judge will say, OK, we did try to work with Portland Pipe Line.”

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