PORTLAND – The 200,000 people in the 11 communities served by the Portland Water District are fortunate: Sebago Lake water is so clear and clean that it is exempt from expensive filtration processes required with most other sources of surface water.

But what if – someday, somehow – we should suddenly have no water? It could happen.

As a Portland Water District trustee, I’ve long been an advocate for broadening our efforts to protect Sebago Lake – both by acquiring ownership of shoreland (the district now owns more than 2,500 acres around our intake at the lake’s southern end), and by establishing conservation easements with environmentally conscious landowners to protect the 300,000-acre watershed.

But now the lake faces a much greater danger – from north of Montana, in the tar sands of Alberta, the world’s largest known deposits of crude bitumen oil.

Enbridge Energy Partners, a Canadian pipeline company, wants to use the 71-year-old Portland Pipe Line to pump tar sands oil from Montreal through Vermont and New Hampshire and western Maine, past Sebago Lake, and finally to tankers in Portland Harbor.

Tar sands oil is not the same as the crude oil that the pipeline carries from South Portland to Montreal. Crude bitumen is a semi-solid form of crude oil that also contains silica sand and clay minerals. It is significantly more corrosive and more abrasive than other forms of crude oil. And because it is less viscous, it requires much more pumping pressure to push it through the pipe.

So leaks are more likely. And because crude bitumen is heavier than water, it sinks to the bottom of whatever river or lake it spills into, making cleanup difficult and costly.

A good example of this confronted Michigan in mid-2010, when a corroded section of an Enbridge pipe poured more than 1 million gallons of tar sands oil into a creek that feeds into the Kalamazoo River, poisoning the water and exposing residents to benzene and other toxic chemicals. The spill cost nearly $1 billion to clean up – the most expensive inland oil spill in American history.

The National Transportation Safety Board condemned Enbridge for mishandling the spill, saying Enbridge’s own inspectors had found hairline cracks in its pipeline five years before the spill, but did nothing about them. What’s worse, oil oozed out of that ruptured pipeline for 17 hours before being detected by Enbridge workers.

The spill closed the river for cleanup for two years before it was finally reopened this summer – but the cleanup is still incomplete. Early this month, the Environmental Protection Agency told Enbridge that more work is needed.

Regulators said a sheen in the water is the “result of submerged oil accumulations,” which are “capable of migrating further downstream if not contained and recovered.”

Dredging the Kalamazoo River appears to be the only solution.

If such a break occurred in the pipeline in the Sebago Lake watershed, particularly where the pipeline crosses Panther Run, a tributary that enters Sebago Lake in Raymond, tar sands oil could cause catastrophic damage to our water source. And it could destroy the lake’s recreational benefits and southern Maine’s economy.

Dredging the lake – 45 square miles, 316 feet deep at its deepest point – would be enormously expensive and difficult, if not impossible. We cannot afford it. We cannot afford the poisoning of our drinking water. We cannot afford crude oil from the Alberta tar sands.

I oppose any attempt to modify the existing Portland-to-Montreal oil pipeline to transport Alberta tar sands oil through the Sebago Lake watershed, and I urge every one of the Portland Water District’s customers to do the same.

How? One way is to sign a petition being circulated online by the Natural Resources Council of Maine (www.nrcm.org/TarSandsAction.asp), asking Maine’s elected leaders for “full environmental review of any tar sands pipeline proposal, and to ensure that a through public input opportunity is a mandatory part of the decision-making process.”

You can also sign the Sierra Club’s online Maine petition (action.sierraclub.org) urging Enbridge “to drop this risky and dangerous proposal.”

And you can ask candidates for the Legislature and other elective offices in Maine where they stand on this issue before you vote on Nov. 6.

 

- Special to the Press Herald