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

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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.

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