2018-04-20 / Front Page

City rebuffs oil companies

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Oil companies caught among local, state and federal environmental rules have been refused a pass by the South Portland City Council, which says they must at least try to comply with a new organic pesticide ordinance before throwing in the towel.

“You’re coming to us with a supposition of failure that hasn’t occurred yet, and you’re talking about an ordinance that was very carefully crafted,” said Councilor Claude Morgan. “My recommendation would be to go in with your best good-faith effort and try to make this work. We are all making sacrifices here.”

In September 2016, South Portland adopted a sweeping ordinance designed to restrict the use of chemical pesticides for all turf, landscape and outdoor pest management activities throughout the city, on both public and private property. The new rules were phased in, however, to allow property owners time to get on board with organic lawn treatments. The city began to comply with the new rules as of May 2017. Private property owners are set to follow suit May 1.

On Feb. 26 representatives from five oil terminals met with City Manager Scott Morelli, Fire Chief Jim Wilson and Sustainability Director Julie Rosenbach. Their concern was that National Fire Protection Association Code 30 requires that land surrounding each oil tank within the protective earthen berm to be kept free of vegetation and other flammable items. However, the pre-emptive, broadcast spraying of pesticides prevent vegetative growth is prohibited under the new pesticide ordinance. However, as Bruce Yates, terminal manager for Global Companies pointed out in an April 5 letter to Morelli, “The majority of organic herbicides rely on application following growth of vegetation.”

The oil companies could apply for a waiver from the newly created Pest Management Advisory Committee. However, as Morelli noted in an April 10 memo to the council, that option “would seem unlikely because the ordinance requires that the waiver application include a solution that does not include the pre-emptive, broadcast spraying of pesticides.”

In other words, the feds say there should be no weeds, but oil companies can’t prevent the weeds from appearing because the city says they can’t apply anything but the preferred product, which can’t be used until after the weeds appear.

Adding to the dilemma, most organic weed treatments contain nitrogen, which oil terminals can’t use as state and federal regulations bar the possibility of nitrogen leaching into watersheds. Most of the tanks are not only in the watershed, they are a literal stone’s throw from Casco Bay or the Fore River that runs into it.

Even of the oil companies could use an organic alternative in the quantities they’d need, and the frequency required – from one treatment per year to as many as a dozen – they might easily end up out of compliance with the feds anyway.

“Organic vegetative control products have unproven results in large industrial sites,” Yates wrote. “There is no guarantee the products will work.”

And so, the five companies that maintain industrial oil and gas tanks in South Portland asked the council at its April 10 workshop to amend the pesticide ordinance, creating a special exemption for them.

The only real alternative would be to hire crews to pull the weeds by hand as they sprout. In an April 5 email to Morelli, Rolf Westphal, terminal manager for Sprague Energy, said an attempt to comply with South Portland’s pesticide ordinance would spike his company’s weed control costs from about $10,000 per year to as much as $40,000.

That’s not considering the trouble terminals would face just trying to find a vendor interested in the work and obtaining the security clearances required.

“We can’t just have any contract come into our yard. The Coast Guard monitors access very closely,” said Steve Wing, operations manager for Buckeye Partners, claiming that it can take “several months” to obtain a clearance for each worker.

Meanwhile, it’s not as simple as just mowing on a regular basis. The feds also restrict the types of activity that can take place inside the berms, most particularly for those tanks that store the more combustible refined products.

“There are strict rules – no gas-powered engines. No lawn mowers or weedwackers allowed,” said Randy Hughes of Portland Pipe Line. “That make it even more labor intensive.”

The oil companies drew little sympathy on that front.

“Just because something is a little more costly doesn’t really hold weight with me,” said Councilor Kate Lewis, suggesting that everyone else pays a higher cost for the continued use of traditional pesticides and herbicides.

“We’re spending millions and millions of dollars on special education and there is a growing body of scientific evidence that is linking this need to the chemicals in pesticides,” she said.

“Just because something is organic doesn’t mean that it is safe,” said Councilor Adrian Dowling.

However, even Dowling said the oil companies had failed for failing to try.

“What we are looking for is more of a demonstration that you have explored a lot of the different alternatives, such as permanently eliminating the grass (from around the tanks),” he said. “We’re just saying try something and see if it’s effective before you say it doesn’t work.”

“Then somebody comes up with (an organic) treatment that is compliant with the (National Fire Protection Association) ruling, we’ll gladly use it,” Wing said. “Nobody is arguing or just trying to push back. But at this time they don’t make a pre-emergent organic pesticide that we can spray before the weeds germinate. The two (sides) that we are supposed to deal with have us really caught in the middle.”

Terminal representatives were similarly caught between the council and members of the audience, several of whom spoke against the requested amendment.

“Pesticides are dangerous and harmful to people’s health and there are schools nearby,” said Churchill Street resident Rachel Berger. “This seems like quite a lot of spraying that is being asked for.”

“Until there is some effort to comply there is no good or valid reason to amend the ordinance for their sole, private benefit,” said Judy Klein of Breakwater Drive. “To even ask is disrespectful of everyone who worked so hard toward the passage of this ordinance.”

Meanwhile, Orchard Street resident Patricia Whyte thought she has a solution.

“One word,” she said. “Sheep.”

However, Wing pointed out that Sprague tried that about 15 years ago. The experiment lasted about two weeks when it was realized that sheep feces, like many organic pesticides, is rich in nitrogen.

Ultimately, what seemed to sway most on the council was that fact that the oil companies were coming forward mere weeks before they ordinance is due to take effect.

“It seems a little odd to me that it was only in February of this year that these people seemed to decide they had a problem,” said School Street resident M. J. Ferrier. “Why were they not concerned about this when the ordinance was passed? Why did they not come forward when the ordinance was in (the drafting) process? If they ran their businesses making last-minute decisions like this, they wouldn’t be in business very long.”

“This is a little bit late in the game to asking the council for a waiver,” agreed Councilor Maxine Beecher.

That left it to Mayor Linda Cohen to build bridges were she could, especially given the anti-business/anti-oil reputation she acknowledged the council has gained in recent years.

“I feel for where you are. I get it,” she said. “It does look like you’re getting a no, but it’s not because of the oil industry.”

Return to top