SOUTH PORTLAND – A South Portland citizens group has submitted more than four times the signatures needed to put an ordinance on the November ballot that promises to block export of so-called “tar sands” oil from the Portland Pipe Line terminal fronting Casco Bay.
Concerned Citizens of South Portland submitted 3,779 signatures to City Clerk Susan Mooney Monday morning, immediately following a press conference on the front steps of City Hall in which Mayor Tom Blake and his wife Dee Dee added their names to the list.
“We cannot stand by and let South Portland become another victim of the dangerous effects of tar sands oil,” said Blake, who cradled a sleeping granddaughter in his arms as he crouched to sign the petition, while about 100 supporters looked on, waving signs.
“While jobs are critical and a concern, no amount of jobs are important if we cannot drink the water, breathe the air, or work the soils we stand on,” said Blake.
South Portland’s city charter requires assent from 5 percent of “qualified electors” to force an ordinance proposal before the City Council. That, according to Mooney, comes out to 939 of South Portland’s 18,783 registered voters. Once Mooney submits the validated signatures to the City Council, it has 60 days to take action.
Blake said after Monday’s demonstration that he expects the council to conduct a workshop on the petition “sometime next month,” with a vote possible by July 15. Blake, who said he signed the petition as a resident of South Portland and not as its mayor, expects the council will vote to pass the petition on the voters at the November general election without adding any amendments of its own, as allowed by charter.
“I would say the number of signatures speaks volumes,” said Blake. “I would be quite surprised if the council interfered.”
Concerned Citizens spokeswoman Carol Masterson said more than 125 volunteers gathered the submitted names in just 11 days, from the start of the group’s petitioning drive at a similar front-step press conference on June 6.
“I have seen so clearly in the last week and a half that, when people come together, amazing things can happen,” said Masterson. “Together, we can stop the tar sands smokestacks next to Bug Light and protect our community. We can set an example for the rest of the country of a community standing together against the oil industry giant, ExxonMobil, and perhaps we’ll inspire other communities to do the same.”
Literature submitted by petition circulators claimed ExxonMobil, majority owner of the 236-mile long Portland-Montreal line “plans to use the 63-year-old pipeline to carry toxic tar sands to South Portland for export out of Casco Bay.” This, the material claimed, “will require the building of two 70-foot-tall smokestacks – the tallest in South Portland – on the pier next to iconic Bug Light,” by Portland Pipe Line Corp., a wholly-owned subsidiary of Montreal Pipe Line Ltd.
The proposed ordinance allows Portland Pipe Line to continue the operations it has undertaken since 1941, offloading up to two million barrels of crude oil at a time from tankers at its South Portland pier and pumping the product up to Montreal for refining. The company has 23 storage tanks in the city that can hold up to 3.5 million barrels each, along with eight pump stations and two pipelines – an 18-inch line dating to 1950 and a 24-inch line built in 1965 – which cross under Broadway.
However, the waterfront protection ordnance would ban any enlargement, expansion or construction of any petroleum storage or distribution facilities anywhere in South Portland’s shoreland area or in the city’s shipyard and commercial districts.
New equipment would be required to reverse the flow of the pipeline and import diluted bitumen, or “tar sands,” from Montreal.
On Monday, Pipe Line spokesman Ted O’Meara declined comment on the latest developments, referring instead to a previous press release in which he characterized the petition drive as one filled with “misinformation, exaggeration and mistruths.”
“The only thing the company has to add today is that CEO Larry Wilson says that the company ‘intends to be pro-active in its response’ to the proposed ordinance,” O’Meara wrote in an email.
At a public hearing March 11 attended by nearly 400 people, Pipe Line officials said that although they “continue to seek all opportunities to maximize the use of our assets,” which has not run at its 602 barrel-per-day design capacity “for most of its existence.” The company has of yet received no request to reverse flow in the line, said Wilson, adding that VOC [volatile organic compound] smokestacks may not even be necessary given technological advances made since 2008, when the corporation last submitted an expansion proposal, since expired, to the South Portland Planning Board.
“We would look at other technologies,” said Wilson. “One is called a vapor recovery unit, instead of having to burn or incinerate vapors like three stacks already in South Portland, it pulls in and retains the vapors following very strict standards.”
Last week, City Manager Jim Gailey declined to comment on the new ordinance proposal.
“Staff has taken a neutral position at this point,” he said. “We are allowing the process to play and holding all action until such time as the petition is submitted.”
Long thought to be “garbage crude,” diluted bitumen is not pumped from below ground but mined from the surface mined and boiled loose from the sandstone it saturates.As traditional sources of crude oil have dried up, and as technology has improved, bitumen has become financially feasible to extract. Alberta, Canada, has one of the world’s largest deposits.
However, bitumen has the consistency of peanut butter – the pejorative “tar sands” comes from the product’s resemblance to tar – and cannot be pushed through pipelines unless it is heated or diluted with other materials. Because of these additives, and the heavy metals naturally present that may be concentrated by the extraction process, and because of its presumed corrosiveness, tar sands have become a target of many environmental groups. One local contingent, 350 Maine, calls it “the dirtiest fuel on the planet.”
On Nov. 29, 2012, pipeline giant Enbridge filed an application with Canada’s National Energy Board to reverse the flow of one of its major lines to carry “heavy crude” oil out of western Canada. According to environmental news service EcoWatch.org, “It is widely understood this filing is part of a larger oil export plan to move tar sands out of Alberta, east through Montreal and down to Maine.”
The Enbridge filing sent environmental activists in Maine on the warpath. They expanded protests that began gestating last summer by staging demonstrations and rallying residents against the possibility of tar sands entering the state via the Portland-Montreal artery, which runs from Canadian refineries, through Vermont and New Hampshire and past Sebago Lake, to South Portland.
To date, Casco, Harrison and Waterford have adopted resolutions opposing the transport of diluted bitumen through their towns, as has Bridgton, even though it is not on the pipeline route. Otisfield residents are scheduled to consider a similar resolution at the end of June.
However, at their June 12 annual town meeting, Bethel voters repealed by a 2-1 margin an anti-tar sands resolution adopted in January.
“Bethel’s decision to overturn its resolution is another setback to activists seeking to hijack Maine’s local decision making process to advance their global off-oil agenda,” said John Quinn, executive director of the New England Petroleum Council, according to a press release issues after the vote.
According the Petroleum Council release, authored by communications consultant Dan Demeritt, the other major setback involved the Maine Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee, which on May 13 “unanimously rejected a temporary ban on the movement of oil sands crude in part because of assurances from the Maine DEP that banning oil sands crude could impact supply and increase consumer prices.”
Instead the committee opted to expand a Department of Environmental Protection study already under way into the transport of diluted bitumen through Maine. That report is due back to the Legislature by Jan. 31, 2014.
Demeritt also lauded Portland and Raymond, which, he said, “have passed balanced and deliberative statements concerning the potential transportation of oil sands crude,” which “the industry supported.”
Meanwhile, volunteers who spoke Monday see their approach as equally reasoned, given their environmental concerns.
“My family goes to Bug Light regularly,” said Ocean View Avenue resident Bill Duffy. “Who doesn’t go there for their Fourth of July fireworks?
“Well, we wouldn’t need them anymore actually, the fireworks, because they’d be right there,” said Duffy, pointing in the direction of Bug Light and raising the spectre of an industrial accident.
Like Blake and Duffy, many members of Concerned Citizens of South Portland cited a March 29 pipeline rupture that spewed 19,000 barrels of tar sands oil, enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, in the small town of Mayflower, Ark., reportedly contaminating 22 homes. This week, both Arkansas and the federal government filed suit against ExxonMobil for cleanup violations.
“We cannot risk a tar sands oil spill in our Lake Sebago watershed, which is the source of our public drinking water,” said Roberta Zuckerman of Preble Street. “We cannot risk a tar sands oil spill in Casco Bay that would devastate our economy, jobs, fishing and lobstering industries, tourist industry, health, recreation and property values.”