July 26, 2013

The tar sands fight in our backyard

Opponents of tar sands oil flowing into South Portland have awakened a powerful foe: an industry that says a pre-emptive city ordinance threatens its existing regional investment.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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An oil tanker unloads at a terminal facility in South Portland on Thursday. The city’s terminals made Portland Harbor the second largest oil port on the East Coast in 2012.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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A vehicle from Fielding Oil fills up with heating oil at the Sprague Energy terminal in South Portland on Thursday.

Additional Photos Below


As written, the proposed anti-tar sands ordinance in South Portland would implement a few key changes to current zoning law:

Stipulate that petroleum storage tank farms and accessory piers, pumping and distribution facilities in the shipyard district would be allowed for the "unloading of petroleum products from ships docking in South Portland" only.

Ban the enlargement or expansion of existing petroleum storage tank farms and accessory piers, pumping and distribution facilities, or facilities for the storing and handling of petroleum and/or petroleum products in the shipyard district; or within a 250-foot strip of land extending inland from the highest annual tide mark in waterfront commercial zones. In a memo to Planning Board members, South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey called this provision "a major departure from existing policy."

Install a blanket ban on construction, installation, or development of any new facility on an existing pier in the shipyard district.

Define "expansion" as "construction, reconstruction or alteration of any existing facility to change the function or capacity of such facilities; construction of any new combustion units, stacks, vapor recovery systems, equipment, structure, or machinery for transportation or storage of petroleum, including any pumping, distribution or other facility for loading tankers or other ships instead of unloading ships."

Exempt the new prohibitions from being waived or the subject of variances unless such waivers or variances are necessary to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, fire codes or pollution control regulations.

As written, the technical and complex measure would implement several key changes to current zoning law.

For example, petroleum storage tank farms and accessory facilities in the shipyard district would be allowed for the "unloading of petroleum products from ships docking in South Portland" only. It would ban expansion of existing tank farms and accessory facilites and construction of new facilities on existing piers in the shipyard district, among other changes.

The two sides also disagree sharply on whether the proposal is consistent with the city's comprehensive plan, a key issue before the city Planning Board.

The Planning Board has been tasked by the City Council with determining whether the proposed ordinance complies with the vision for each affected area. The board is not expected to vote on a recommendation until its next meeting Aug. 13.

The council also will hold a public hearing on the proposal before likely placing it on the ballot in November.

Soon, the conversation surrounding the proposed ordinance will become a lot more public, and will see more direct outreach to voters by oil companies and their supporters.

The committee established by Py's trade group will allow petroleum-related companies to raise and spend money for a campaign to defeat the ballot question.

And petroleum is a big industry in South Portland.

The city's six large terminals bring in oil products and then distribute heating oil and gasoline throughout New England. They handle more than 100 million barrels of oil a year and made Portland Harbor the second largest oil port on the East Coast in 2012, according to state data.

Portland Pipe Line Corp. was the city's sixth largest taxpayer in 2012. It is valued at $45 million and paid about $750,000 in taxes, according to City Assessor Elizabeth Sawyer.

Five other petroleum terminal operators represented about $40 million in property value. Those terminals, along with two related tank facilities, generated roughly $840,000 in taxes in 2012.

A spokesman for the energy marketer's association declined this week to describe the group's campaign plans, but said the group will stand with the people and small businesses that rely on the working waterfront. 

Matt Byrne can be reached at 791-6303 or at:


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Additional Photos

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Unloading arms remove oil for storage from the oil tanker HS Electra at Portland Pipe Line’s pier facility in South Portland in March. Portland Pipe Line Corp.’s $750,000 tax bill made it the city’s sixth largest taxpayer in 2012.


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