Since May, citizens, businesses, public relations specialists and petroleum industry groups in South Portland have been engaged in an increasingly polarized and emotional debate over the future of the city’s deep-water port and its potential role in the global petroleum market.
The local ballot initiative known as the Waterfront Protection Ordinance, which would change waterfront zoning, has caused deep divisions in the community, pitting neighbor against neighbor and transforming the local electoral process into a high-stakes campaign.
Depending on whose rhetoric one believes, the zoning measure could lead to economic doom, or conversely, an environmental and public health catastrophe.
At issue is whether Canadian oil sands should be permitted to be shipped through South Portland.
Facing off in the campaign is Protect South Portland, a group of concerned residents who crafted the proposed legal language, collected thousands of signatures to place the question on the ballot, and are advocating for its passage. In the other corner is the Working Waterfront Coalition, a moneyed conglomeration of petroleum-interested companies, regional and national petroleum industry lobbyists, local business owners and workers, which has attacked the proposal point by point and forecast a myriad of unintended consequences if it passes next month.
At times, the rhetoric has reached a feverish intensity.
“In all my years living in and protecting this community, I have never seen a bigger threat to our traditions and our way of life than the Waterfront Protection Ordinance,” former South Portland Fire Chief Phil McGouldrick said in a statement released by the initiative’s opponents.
Advocates for the measure have trotted out their most headline-grabbing anecdotes.
“If there was a spill (of tar sands oil), I probably would die,” said Cathy Chapman, spokeswoman for Protect South Portland and an asthma sufferer, adding that fumes already emitted from the tank farms near her home caused an alarming asthma attack earlier this year. “If I hadn’t had my inhaler with me, I don’t know what would have happened,” she said.
Through competing news conferences, news releases, public endorsements, robotic telephone calls, canvassing and direct mail, each campaign group has done its best to discredit the other, citing what each describes as the other’s lies, all the while advocating for their unique interpretation of a scant few paragraphs that would be added to the city’s zoning ordinance.
“I’m hoping the very first thing we do, no matter what happens November 5, is we begin the healing process,” said Mayor Tom Blake, an early and outspoken proponent of the ordinance. “It saddens me that this one issue has divided voters.”
The key issue in the referendum is whether a longtime South Portland business, the Portland Pipe Line Corp., should be able to reverse the flow of its 236-mile underground pipeline that connects it to refineries in Montreal.
South Portland has long been an oil-handling port. Its six waterfront terminals have for decades received shipments of home heating oil, gasoline, jet fuel and other petroleum products, which are stored in massive tank farms that dot the city’s shorefront property and suburban neighborhoods before trucks distribute them around northern New England. The terminals also receive crude oil, which the pipeline pumps northwest to Montreal for processing.
But the pipeline corporation, which has an 18-inch pipe and a 24-inch pipe, has experienced a decline in the demand for its service. In 2009, the company received state and local permits to reverse the flow of one of its pipes to bring Canadian crude oil from Alberta into South Portland for loading onto tankers that would ferry it to refineries overseas.
In its raw form, the crude is a mixture of sticky petroleum, water and sand that at room temperature has the consistency of cold molasses. Although the oil sands’ existence has been known since the 1930s, the silty mixture proved too costly to refine until recent years, when oil prices soared to record levels, making the substance more attractive.
In order to handle the substance efficiently and pump it through piping, the raw petroleum is mixed with a cocktail of potent chemicals that dilute its consistency, allowing the mixture to flow more easily. The resulting product is referred to as diluted bitumen.
The 2009 project would have added loading arms and two 70-foot-tall smokestack structures to the Portland Pipe Line Corp.’s pier, which sits adjacent to Bug Light Park. The stacks, called vapor combustion units, would have burnt off gases associated with the loading of the diluted bitumen onto the tankers. Portland Pipe Line Corp. eventually declined to pursue the project, but a state environmental permit allowing the company to build the stacks lingered on the books, and was renewed in August 2012, leading many to believe the company still harbored a desire to bring the so-called tar sands oil through South Portland. The company made a point of surrendering the permit last week.
On its face, the amendment to the city zoning ordinance would redefine the allowable uses in the city’s shipyard zone and in other parts of waterfront property, strictly defining the unloading of petroleum as an allowed use and limiting any expansion or alteration of existing petroleum facilities that would change their function or capacity.
Early on, the South Portland Planning Board, charged with making a nonbinding recommendation on whether the proposal conflicts with the city’s long-term plan, raised questions about the ordinance amendment’s language and wording. At two meetings this summer, the board spent hours parsing every semicolon and comma, hearing arguments from high-priced attorneys and residents alike, searching in the language for a clarity that proved elusive. In the nonbinding vote, the board eventually decided 4-2 that the language is not consistent with the city’s long-range goals for the waterfront areas, a decision that petroleum industry advocates have returned to as validation of their interpretation of the law.
Advocates for the proposal say that it was carefully crafted and should be interpreted within the context of the entire city zoning ordinance, which for the waterfront contains a diverse list of allowable uses, including marinas, office buildings, municipal parks, light industrial facilities, hotels and motels, and notably, petroleum-handling facilities. According to Natalie West, the volunteer attorney who drafted the proposal, existing petroleum companies will be grandfathered and allowed to continue operating now and into the future.
The oil industry, including Portland Pipe Line Corp. and other waterfront businesses that handle and distribute petroleum products, rallied against the proposal. In public comments, attorneys for the petroleum companies disputed the ordinance’s wording, particularly around phrases that restrict expansion or enlargement of the facilities, which they argued would trigger the demise of their clients’ massive businesses there. Without the ability to maintain, update and alter equipment, they argued, the industry would wither, taking with it millions in municipal tax revenue and countless jobs.
On that supposition, the campaign commissioned an economic study to determine what may happen if the multimillion-dollar terminals and tank farms ceased operating and disappeared, only to be replaced by trucking companies that would bring oil products from elsewhere.
Predictably, the costs were great: $38 million of annual local spending and employment by the waterfront businesses, and the loss of 85 jobs, with much grander impacts expected down the line.
(The study’s author, Maine economist Charles Lawton, did not and was not directed to evaluate whether this was a probable outcome.)
Proponents have largely approached the ordinance amendment as an environmental and public health concern.
The pipeline currently runs below Sebago Lake, an important regional watershed that provides drinking water to much of southeastern Maine. A spill in that area or in Casco Bay, the initiative’s proponents say, would be disastrous, as there is no proven method to clean up oil sands once they escape into water, pointing to disasters in Michigan and Arkansas as scenarios that could face Maine.
The ordinance amendment’s backers also point to the off-gassing of harmful chemicals if such a project were built, saying that the air in Greater Portland is already dirty enough. In their argument, because tank farms are so closely situated to residential neighborhoods and schools, children can’t help but breathe and be harmed by the odorous gases the tanks sometimes emit, although the total particulate and volatile organic compound loads that the Portland Pipe Line Corp. was permitted to expel under the 2009 proposal represented a mere fraction of what other facilities in the area already emit.
If the Waterfront Protection Ordinance is approved by voters, how it will be administered and what challenges it faces remain unclear.
Pat Doucette, the city’s code enforcement officer, has declined to interpret the initiative or respond to questions about the appeal process if a permit applicant in the city were to be turned down citing the new measure’s provisions. City Manager James Gailey, in an email, has largely done the same.
“Due to the issue being a political hot-potato for this community, (South Portland municipal) staff will not take a position or provide interpretation,” Gailey wrote Friday. “Any appeal will be through the court of law after the vote goes one way or another.”
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: