WINDHAM – Six college students on break for the summer rolled through North Windham last week on a New England tour, urging locals to fight against the possibility that the Portland-Montreal Pipeline could be used to transport heavy crude oil from Canada.

The students visited locally owned companies primarily in North Windham educating them about the environmental threat they say the heavier oil product poses and inviting them to sign a petition they will present to the Windham Town Council. Though asked by opponents of tar sands to address the matter, the council so far has not joined area towns in the Lakes Region calling for a ban or tighter scrutiny of any oil-related proposal.

The signature-seekers were from a grassroots group known as Climate Summer, which organizes summer internships in New England during which college students spend their summer bicycling through communities raising awareness for environmental concerns. There are four such groups operating in northern New England this summer. The group that passed through Windham has covered 400 miles so far in about three weeks and plans to top 1,000 miles by the end of the summer.

“The real goal is to build a social movement away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy,” said Garrett Blad, a University of Notre Dame student who is serving as the media coordinator for the group in Maine. “We’re building the climate justice movement. We really believe in a grassroots movement, and that’s why we’re going to communities.”

Blad said the group, which includes four women and two men, is practicing what they preach by using self-propelled transportation and living cheaply. They split off into three groups of two when approaching local businesses.

They are limiting their budget to $6 per day per person, so eating out or staying in motels is not an option. Instead, they are staying in churches and taking advantage of church kitchens, where they prepare communal meals. Locally, they stayed at the First Parish Church in downtown Gorham.

“We also believe our entrance into churches gives us a stake in the community because we become a part of the community in that we have a lot of connections and things like that,” Blad said.

Above all, they say, the group wants the community to be aware of the possible dangers if the substance known as tar sands is allowed to pass through the 60-year-old pipeline.

“We’re going to local businesses in Windham to get their support to call for a full environmental review for the tar sands issue,” said group member Shaun Carland, a University of Southern Maine student from Portland. “The pipeline crosses by many of these businesses and crosses by the entire Sebago Lake watershed, so in the event of a spill, which is very much more likely because these tar sands are more corrosive and acidic than conventional crude oil, it would completely devastate the Sebago Lake area. And a lot of these businesses rely on tourism in order to power the local economy, but in the case of a spill, that industry would be ruined.”

In addition to Blad and Carland, the Maine group includes Elena Franco of Washington, D.C., who is a student at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., Mariah Chen of the San Francisco Bay area and Barnard College, Rebecca Newman of Boxborough, Mass., and Ithaca College, and Janice Chen of southern California, who’s attending a dual-degree program at Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design.

The group received training on the issue and how best to approach people on the controversial matter from Emily Figdor, of Environment Maine, who praised the group for their efforts. While she hasn’t been successful in convincing Windham leaders to sign a resolution, Figdor has helped draft resolutions in several towns along the pipeline route in Maine.

“We trained them on how to present and helped plan activities and provided them materials, and I think it’s great that young people are so involved and engaging other people across Maine,” Figdor said. “I think it’s fabulous.”

The pipeline now ships oil from the tanks in South Portland to Canada. The issue has garnered a lot of attention, but there has not been a public proposal to reverse the flow of the pipeline in order to ship the crude from Alberta, Canada, to Casco Bay via the pipeline. However, the head of the pipeline company, Larry Wilson, has said repeatedly that the company would be willing to do so if producers in Canada requested it.

The company has also refuted claims that the oil sands are dangerous to ship, and pointed to the many jobs supported by the oil industry in the area served by the pipeline.

Windham officials held an informational session on the issue, but have yet to act. Raymond crafted a resolution calling for a thorough review by the government of any project involving oil sands, Figdor said, and several other towns, including Harrison, Bridgton, Casco and Otisfield have adopted strongly worded resolutions.

At the terminus of the pipeline in South Portland, Figdor said her group is working with Concerned Citizens of South Portland to convince local Planning Board members to stop the pipeline company from erecting tall smokestacks that would be needed for the conversion to heavy crude. Next Thursday, there is a demonstration at Portland Water District’s office on Douglass Street in Portland at 6 p.m., to mark the third anniversary of the Kalamazoo River spill that spoiled miles of river with the oil sands. She says people are “clearly” mobilizing against the possibility that the pipeline company may ship the new product.

“So, while Windham has yet to draft a resolution, we’re seeing every day more and more people growing concerned with this issue,” Figdor said. “This proposal poses tremendous concerns for the air and water quality of Maine and the Lakes Region.”

Blad said Windham could be an important player in the tar sands debate.

“The goal is to get people informed about the issue, along with businesses. And we think the Windham Town Council is very small business-oriented and if they see this issue can affect tourism and therefore affect small businesses, that might get them to react,” Blad said.

The group also carries the larger message for the people of Maine to conserve and protect the environment.

“The goal is to transition from fossil fuels to renewables,” Blad said. “We already have electric cars. The goal is to essentially get the whole vehicle sector on electricity and power electricity with wind and solar and tide power.

“We’re not telling everyone that this is what they should be doing. We’re just showing that this is what we believe in. These are our values and morals, and we’re going to use our summer to explain that and try to connect with communities by showing our values.”

The group of college students has ridden more than 400 miles so far this summer traveling around Maine urging Mainers to oppose any transport of Albertan oil sands through the Portland to Montreal pipeline, which runs underground through much of the Lakes Region on its way to South Portland’s tank farms. Staff photo by John Balentine 

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