SOUTH PORTLAND — There was no shortage of opinions about Canadian tar sands oil Monday night at the Community Center.

About 400 people attended what Mayor Tom Blake called the largest council workshop ever held.

More than 70 speakers – including residents, and officials from Portland Pipe Line Co., the Canadian government, New England Petroleum Council and Natural Resources Council of Maine – traded comments and jabs about the wisdom of importing oil extracted in Alberta and shipped through a pipeline from Montreal to Maine, where the oil could be exported from the company pier near Bug Light Park.

The workshop goal was to allow more discussion about importing tar sands; Councilor Jerry Jalbert cautioned the crowd that no action would be taken Monday. City Manager Jim Gailey said Wednesday the Planning Board is the only municipal board with any regulatory authority over importing the oil.

While there are no existing plans, which would require reversing a pipeline flow, Portland Pipe Line President Larry Wilson said he would welcome the possibility because of the economic growth it could create.

“We don’t have an opportunity yet, but we would love to,” he said.

The opportunity, however, could bring severe health and environmental hazards, according to Dylan Voorhees of the NRCM.

Voorhees described damage caused when tar sands oil leaked into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010, and said its corrosive nature and the additives needed to dilute the oil make the it prone to leaking and especially hazardous when it does.

“This is an aging pipeline,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense for us to put this through it.”

Canadian Consul General for New England Patrick Binns, and John Quinn, executive director of the New England Petroleum Council, spoke in favor of pipeline reversal.

Binns said oil imports would be part of continued strong U.S. and Canadian relations, and be beneficial to the national and local economies.

“We are America’s strongest ally and have a relationship that is highly integrated,” Binns said.

Binns and Quinn disputed Voorhees’s assessments of the dangers of tar sands oil, citing studies  by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Penspen Integrity, a British pipeline company, that assessed the risks and potential corrosion from tar sands as no greater than heavy crude oil.

Voorhees and other opponents dismissed the studies as biased in favor of the oil industry.

Wilson and Quinn could not tell councilors the exact nature of components used to help dilute the oil before shipment, but said benzene is used.

Wilson said benzene, classified as a carcinogen by the EPA, is “not what I would call an exotic chemical.”

Quinn promised to submit a detailed list of components to City Manager James Gailey.

Wilson and Portland Pipe Line employees, including engineering manager Ken Brown, and health, safety and environmental coordinator Nick Payeur, also defended the safety and maintenance of the 236-mile pipelines routed through Raymond and along the Crooked River north and west of Sebago Lake. The pipelines also pass through New Hampshire and Vermont to reach Montreal.

Wilson said the company conducts weekly aerial patrols of the pipelines and conducts inline inspections for corrosion and other hazards every five years.

“It is constantly being upgraded. Would you drive across the Golden Gate Bridge today? It’s older (than the pipeline),” Wilson noted.

In response, Voorhees asked Wilson to release all inspection reports from agencies including the EPA, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Department of Transportation and Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

Other critics, including Casco Energy Committee member Peg Dilley, expressed worry the 62-year-old pipelines will not withstand the corrosion from tar sands oil and about environmental effects caused by any need to heat the oil for easier shipment.

Dilley said she can see the pipelines as they pass by her proeprty and wondered how well first responders would be trained to cope with a spill.

Casco residents passed a resolution opposing reversing the pipeline flow at a town meeting in January. Residents in Waterford and Bethel passed similar resolutions.

Voorhees noted Enbridge, the company operating the pipeline shipping tar sands oil near the Kalamazoo River, also had an exemplary safety and environmental record before the July 2010 spill, where about 1 million gallons of oil contaminated 38 miles of the river. The company eventually bought 140 homes from residents in the affected watershed.

Former City Councilors Linda Boudreau and Maxine Beecher and former Planning Board member Carol Thorne vouched for Portland Pipe Line operations and oversight.

“I have had the experience of working with Portland Pipeline and I think you need to care about that,” Beecher told councilors.

Boudreau said she recycles, composts, hangs clothes on the line instead of using a dryer and takes other steps to protect the environment.

“They uphold all the principles I uphold,” Boudreau said. “I would encourage you to support Portland Pipe Line.”

Former company employee Tim Hendricks, of Scarborough, said people should be reassured by the company’s history and economic contributions to the city.

“Please do not unfairly punish a company that has operated safely,” he said.

Those assurances were not entirely comforting for city residents worried about hazards beyond a spill, including the potential need for vapor control or reduction units at the company pier near Bug Light Park.

In 2009, permits for two 70-foot high vapor combustion towers were approved by the Planning Board as part of company efforts to export Canadian oil.

The prospect of the stacks and potential emissions troubled Roberta Zuckerman, who lives in the nearby Willard Square neighborhood.

“What is going to be burned off in those smokestacks?” she asked.

The permits have expired, and Brown said there are no details on what might be needed to export the oil now.

“We don’t have a project, we don’t have projections, and we are not going to ask for a fresh permit to do it,” Brown said.

The oil extracted from Alberta does not yet have a clear route to Montreal, although the permitting process to ship it through a pipeline from Ontario is underway.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, has asked the State Department to review the permit it granted to Portland Pipe Line five years ago to reverse the pipeline flow.

Highland Avenue resident Keith MacMullan, at the microphone with his daughter, Lydia, succinctly summed up the discussion when he asked councilors to keep one question in mind.

“Are the benefits worth the risk?” MacMullan said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Sidebar Elements

Following presentations Monday night on the potential hazards and economic benefits of importing tar sands oil extracted in Alberta, Canada, South Portland city councilors heard a range of public opinions from city residents and speakers from as far away as Casco and New Gloucester during a Community Center forum.

Speakers line up at the South Portland Community Center on Monday night, March 11, to express opinions about importing Canadian oil extracted from tar sands. About 75 speakers offered objections to the plan or support for Portland Pipe Line Co. during the five-hour City Council workshop attended by about 400 people.

Highland Avenue resident Keith McMullan and his daughter, Lydia, speak out against importing Canadian tar sands oil to South Portland because of potential environmental hazards.

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