September 15, 2013

Rival camps dig in on South Portland waterfront zoning

South Portland voters will be hearing all about the proposed rules that would hinder tar sands oil from passing through the city.

By Matt Byrne
Staff Writer

The deluge in South Portland has officially begun.

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The Waterfront Protection Ordinance, officially introduced in June, would amend the South Portland zoning ordinance to specify that permitted petroleum-related uses include the unloading of petroleum products from ships docking in South Portland. The amendment would also limit the enlargement or expansion of existing petroleum facilities.


So-called “tar sands” oil is a raw form of petroleum found underground in a mixture of water and sand. At room temperature, the substance has the consistency of cold molasses and therefore must be diluted with a bevy of volatile organic chemicals before it may be pumped through a pipeline.

Vast deposits of the substance have been known to lie under the Alberta wilderness since the 1930s.

The Alberta government says that proven reserves equal about 170.8 billion barrels of crude oil, most of which is locked up in oil sands. For years, the form of petroleum was too expensive to extract and process to be profitable.

Grass-roots organizers, business interests and political consultants are revving up for dueling campaigns designed to sway residents on a controversial amendment to the zoning ordinance that will appear on the November ballot.

At stake is the passage of the Waterfront Protection Ordinance, which was submitted this spring by residents seeking to prevent so-called tar sands crude oil from ever being pumped through South Portland.

Through interviews with campaign organizers, volunteers and officials on both sides of the issue, a picture of two drastically different campaigns has emerged.

On one side is the relatively moneyed petroleum and waterfront business interests, a group that expects to spend more than $100,000 to defeat the referendum. In the opposite corner are hundreds of motivated residents who hope to replace some of the expensive trappings of a modern campaign with old-fashioned shoe leather and neighbor-to-neighbor outreach.

Both camps have rented office spaces. Both have assembled staff, and both are serious about the time-intensive effort of reaching voters before Nov. 5.

"We have a lot of work to do," said Dan DeMeritt, campaign manager for the Working Waterfront Coalition, the group that is opposing the ordinance.

The campaigners are not the only ones preparing to spend money.

At least one budget-minded South Portland official is girding for a protracted legal battle over the ordinance that he says could cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars if it passes and opponents challenge the measure in court.

City Councilor Jerry Jalbert estimated that the city may have to add $100,000 to its current budget of roughly $184,000 for legal expenses, although no such budget considerations would take place until next year. South Portland does not have an in-house attorney, and would likely have to pay for additional retained counsel to represent the city in a legal fight over the ordinance amendment.

Jalbert said that although backers of the ordinance change have had the advantage of starting their campaign earlier, the opponents are preparing a full-throated response.

"This won't be one side overwhelming the other," Jalbert said. "This is going to be a fair fight."

The vote in South Portland is the byproduct of an international struggle over Canada's ability to export the heavy oil that is abundant in the tar sands of Alberta.

The Portland Pipe Line Corp. operates a South Portland terminal and a pair of underground pipes that supply crude oil to a refinery in Montreal. Activists behind the referendum say they want to make sure the pipeline isn't used to export tar sands oil from Alberta, although the company itself has not made such a proposal.

Environmental activists say tar sands crude is an especially risky oil because it is sticky and corrosive and its export into the global market will accelerate climate change. Petroleum industry representatives, on the other hand, say the oil poses no greater risk of leaking or spilling than the crude oil that already flows through the Portland Pipe Line.


The plan to sway voters to reject the ordinance amendment is multipronged.

At least one round of telephone polling has already occurred. And, opposition campaigners have sent their first piece of direct mail, putting a human face on locally owned businesses they say stand to lose their livelihoods if the measure passes.

The waterfront coalition has planned a "Working Waterfront Week," culminating in public tours of members' facilities Sept. 28 that they will dub "Working Waterfront Day."

Radio and telephone advertisements, also known as "robo-calls," are in the works, too.

At least some of the high-wattage campaign strategy has come from a small cadre of consultants and advisers hired to run the professional outreach operation.

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