October 21, 2013

Tar sands remains sticky wicket in South Portland

High-flying rhetoric, myriad press events and dramatic pronouncements have been the hallmark of the campaign for the Waterfront Protection Ordinance.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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