2015-03-06 / Community

City hires Boston law firm in tar sands fight

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The South Portland City Council voted unanimously Monday to hire Boston law firm Foley Hoag to defend its position in a ongoing legal battle over efforts to ban diluted bitumen, or “tar sands” from city ports.

Portland Pipe Line Corp. filed suit in U.S. District Court Feb. 6, seeking to overturn the Clear Skies Ordinance adopted last July by a 6-1 council vote. That zoning regulation bans loading of crude oil onto ships docked in South Portland, effectively blocking PPL from ever reversing the flow of its pipeline to Montreal to import tar sands from Canada.

PPL has repeatedly said it “has no plans” to trade in tar sands, but that it wants to keep all of its options open – especially given that the pipeline has reportedly run at less than 60 percent capacity for several years. In its suit, PPL says the Clear Skies Ordinance is unconstitutional because it interferes with interstate trade and international trade, areas that are under the purview of the federal government.

PPL is joined in the lawsuit by American Waterways Operators, a national trade association for the inland and coastal tugboat, towboat and barge industry.

“This is the right thing to do,” said Councilor Brad Fox, pointing out that he and Councilor Claude Morgan were elected last fall with active support from Protect South Portland, the grassroots group that led the charge for the tar sands ban. Former councilor Michael Pock, the lone dissenting vote against the zoning change, was sent packing by Morgan’s election.

In a Feb. 25 press release, Mayor Linda Cohen announced the city had been denied insurance coverage by the Maine Municipal Association to defend its position in the lawsuit.

Cohen’s release also said the city will not seek legal aid from third parties in the ongoing conflict over the city’s efforts to ban tar sands from traveling though its ports. However, at Monday’s meeting, city officials actively solicited donations to a special fund set up to wage the imminent legal war.

According to City Manager Jim Gailey, South Portland’s legal budget is $185,000, a sum widely seen as being not nearly enough in a fight that could go all the way to the Supreme Court.

“This litigation may last several years,” said City Attorney Sally Daggett.

Gailey said the city has yet to receive any donations to the Clear Skies Fund, which it created last year, shortly after adopting the zoning change, in anticipation of PPL’s reaction.

“We are fighting a big enemy — big oil,” said Protect South Portland member Catherine Chapman, at Monday’s council meeting. “It is going to cost some money to do this, but I can’t see anything more important.”

Public comment at Monday’s meeting was light compared to most sessions dealing with tar sands in South Portland over the past two years, with just eight speakers on both sides weighing in.

While most supported the move to hire Foley Hoag, some called the council “irresponsible” for hiring a firm – no matter its expertise in environmental issues – without having a cost estimate in hand.

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