2014-09-26 / Front Page

City won’t rezone ‘tank farms’

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer


Rob Sellin, a founding member of activist group Protect South Portland, uses a giant photo of Portland Pipe Line’s tank farm on Hill Street to argue at the Sept. 22 city council meeting on behalf of long-term recommendations made by the Draft Ordinance Committee. (Duke Harrington photo) Rob Sellin, a founding member of activist group Protect South Portland, uses a giant photo of Portland Pipe Line’s tank farm on Hill Street to argue at the Sept. 22 city council meeting on behalf of long-term recommendations made by the Draft Ordinance Committee. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — With the July 21 passage of a Clear Skis Ordinance designed to block diluted bitumen, or “tar sands” from entering the city, and unanimous approval Sept. 15 of a proclamation supporting the federal Clean Air Act, the South Portland City Council has won many accolades from local environmental activists. But on Monday, it stopped short of giving the green crowd everything it wants.

During a two-hour workshop, the council took up long-term recommendations offered by the ad hoc Draft Ordinance Committee — the same three-man group that authored the tar sands ban. Those proposals, which the group acknowledged went beyond the original charge given to it by the council in December, called on four separate actions.

Two, involving zoning changes on properties owned by Portland Pipe Line Corp. appeared to be non-starters for the council, while a third, regarding air quality monitoring, is already on the docket for a future council workshop. Instead, the council spent much of the workshop on the fourth item, which calls on Pipe Line Corp. and other petroleum companies to provide financial assurances they can cover cleanup costs in the event of a spill or terminal closure.

Much of the council’s concern centered on the sound of crickets emanating from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. On April 30, the Draft Ordinance Committee sent a letter to the DEP asking about its financial assurance requirements. According to committee member David Critchfield, DEP has yet to respond to that letter, or even acknowledge its receipt.

“I’m disappointed that we have not heard from DEP in any regard,” said Councilor Tom Blake. “I think it’s the responsibility of the state to answer our questions or, at a minimum, respond to us.”

Many of the questions in the April letter questioned the state regulation calling on a $2 million assurance from marine terminal facilities with a storage capacity of more than 63,000 gallons. The Pipe Line Corp. storage capacity, in tank farms located in Hill, Preble and Front Streets, is 160 million gallons.

The committee asked Melanie Loyzim of the DEP to explain how the department set the $2 million coverage limit, why no engineering estimate was used in setting that price tag, why the financial assurance apparently applies only to the storage tanks, and not the pipeline itself, and if South Portland could tack on its own financial assurance requirements.

“Assuming ($2 million) was a conservative number then, it probably does not represent a realistic number to manage the risks associated with a marine terminal accident today,” wrote the committee, in its recommendation.

The council asked City Manager Jim Gailey to rattle the DEP’s cage, to see if he could get a response as a “more official” authority from South Portland than the volunteer committee.

Of the zoning changes punted by the council, the committee had said the city should amend its comprehensive plan, and ultimately, its zoning ordinances, to take Portland Pipe Line’s Hill Street “tank farm” out of the Marine Industrial District. For one thing, committee member Russell Pierce said, the tank farm is not actually located on the waterfront. Instead, he said, the tank farm should be declared a nonconforming use in the residential zone that surrounds it, near South Portland High School, which would force a residential re-use for the site, should it ever shut down.

Pierce also promoted a plan to take a vacant lot owned by Portland Pipe Line at the corner of Broadway and Pickett Street out of the Shipyard Development District, and re-zone it for mixed use as part of the Pickett Street Neighborhood Center. A potential industrial use for the vacant lot, he said, is incompatible with adjacent lots, as well as with an existing passage in the comprehensive plan that says the city should allow oil facilities to upgrade and expand “on parcels that are already used for this purpose.”

“The point is, the city should not be planning to maintain heavy industrial uses in the middle or surrounded by residential family districts, or mixed used districts,” Pierce said.

However, the council did not seem inclined to move on the committee’s zoning advice.

“Making a business nonconforming is something I don’t take lightly,” said Councilor Linda Cohen. “That’s something that’s very serious. I have no interest in making Portland Pipeline or their tanks nonconforming. They were there before most of us in this room were here, and we’ve survived with them all this time.

“Making them nonconforming doesn’t make the issue go away, if there is an issue coming from the tanks. Any grandfathered nonconforming use can continue, even if the business is transferred to another entity,” Cohen added.

“Having sat on the zoning committee for three years, and then on the comprehensive plan(ning committee), ‘nonconforming’ is a really complex, complicated issue, and far too often actually causes you more problems that you win,” agreed Councilor Maxine Beecher.

Most of the audience comment involved air quality recommendations and the committee call to require installation of ambient air monitoring systems “to protect public health” from emissions at the city’s various petroleum terminals.

“We just have to know what we’re breathing, and we’re hoping our city can tell us,” said Preble Street resident Karen Sanford.

However, while air quality monitoring is scheduled to be the topic of a future council workshop (date to be determined), few on the council seemed to expect any system to point a neon finger at Pipe Line Corp.

Beecher, in particular, pointed out that an air monitor once placed at the high school registered “almost nothing” despite its proximity to the Hill Street petroleum tanks.

“You can’t just pop an air monitor here and there,” she said.

“Air quality is really more regional based, rather than a small area like South Portland,” agreed Mayor Gerard Jalbert. “In air quality monitoring, you have to think in areas larger even than a state. You have to think of the entire eastern seaboard.”

Jalbert also suggested that installation of an air monitoring system could be cost prohibitive.

“We’ll have to look at our budget,” he said. “There’s a lot of issues there.”

Meanwhile, Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketer’s Association, took the council to task for getting the cart in front of the horse. Py’s leading criticism through the draft ordinance process that led up to passage of the Clear Skies Ordinance, was that it represented a rush to judgment, with the city seeking to outlaw tar sands before it really understood what dangers it may or may not present. He repeated that critique again Monday.

“I find it fascinating that we are now talking about air emissions, and trying to figure out what the air emissions are, when we just passed an ordinance based on some hypothetical air emissions problem,” he said.

Toward the end of the meeting, the council agreed the draft ordinance committee had completed its work and would be disbanded, following more than 60 hours of open meetings, in addition to individual research and drafting work. While committee facilitator Jeff Edelstein was paid $200 per hours, the three committee members saw no reimbursement for their time.

“The committee is now asking to please, please, be disbanded,” Jalbert said.

Return to top