In a 4-2 vote Tuesday night, the South Portland Planning Board agreed that a proposed moratorium on any construction needed to pump so-called tar sands oil through local terminals is consistent with the city code of ordinances, and its comprehensive plan.
The moratorium now goes back to the City Council for a Dec. 16 vote with a recommendation for passage.
If adopted, the moratorium would apply only to unrefined tar sands and not any finished products, like gasoline or home heating oil, now flowing through South Portland that may have been refined from Canadian tar sands. It also narrowly targets the work of Portland Pipe Line Corp., unlike the recently defeated Waterfront Protection Ordinance (WPO), a citizen-initiated measure that supporters acknowledge intentionally cast a wide net, in order to prevent the pipeline from forging workaround partnerships with neighboring petroleum companies.
Presumed ancillary impacts of the moratorium, a much-cited reason for the narrow 4,261-4,453 loss of the WPO at the polls on Nov. 5, weighed over the Planning Board’s decision as well. However, City Attorney Sally Daggett assured board members that the document, as she drafted it, applies only to infrastructure needed to load diluted bitumen onto ships along the city’s waterfront zone.
A secondary argument, championed by employees of PPL and other petroleum-based businesses, was whether a six-month moratorium was needed at all, given that no tar sands project is pending, and a veritable mountain of city, state and federal regulatory approvals would be required if something were proposed.
“One could argue that our time here might be better spent developing a moratorium to prevent nuclear power plants from locating in South Portland,” said Burt Russell, vice president of operations at Sprague Energy.
Although two and a half hours of public comment contained many of the same diatribes against PPL that have been voiced since the tar sands debate began in South Portland nearly one year ago — Orchid Street resident Bob White said the company “cannot be trusted to act in good faith” — Cape Elizabeth resident and 30-year PPL employee Dave Cyr said the moratorium really amounts to “a distrust of city, state and federal government,” which set the standards under which his company operates.
Cyr said his organization welcomes a public process that might lead to modification of those standards locally, but questioned the tone set by the moratorium’s language, which defends its timeout on construction with numerous citations of environmental hazards.
“We agree there should be collaboration to get the facts out, but the moratorium is based in fear, fear that may not have a place in reality,” said Cyr. “Its language is inflammatory. It sets the stage. And it would be hard to enter into any meaningful dialogue when you are going into it with the scales so heavily weighted.”
In essence, said Cyr, the wording of the moratorium language belies its intent — to give the city time to form a committee charged with researching how to best react to the possibility of tar sands being imported into the city — and sets up a situation in which the committee will find what it is looking for — a reason to ban the product outright through whatever land-use regulation it can devise.
“We feel that’s unfair and inappropriate,” said PPL attorney Matt Manahan. “The moratorium makes numerous misstatements and is filled with factual inaccuracies that predispose the outcome.”
Still, others in the audience said the moratorium is not clear enough, even given a small victory stemming from last month’s City Council pubic hearing, which resulted in inclusion of the “tar sands” pejorative.
“Why don’t you call it what it really is, poison flowing though our back yards,” said Whitehall Avenue resident Bob Klotz.
Many others stressed the presumed health hazards of oil sands, often referred to by environmental activist groups such as 350 Maine as, “the dirtiest fuel on the planet.”
Cape Elizabeth resident Dr. Carol Hubbard, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Central Maine Medical Center, linked some of the chemicals presumed to be used for tar sands – the exact mixture is considered proprietary information, and has never be released by pipeline officials – to autism, an affliction on the rise in recent decades. Whether there is a direct link or not, Hubbard said, precautions should be taken.
“Very often, environment hazards are underestimated initially and it’s only in the long term that we realize the risks,” she said.
Given the concern expressed by so many – some 95 percent of the speakers Tuesday were anti-tar sands – a majority of the Planning Board seemed to feel there is a genuine threat to South Portland posed by tar sands, whether from the alleged toxic nature of the product itself, or the airborne carcinogens that would result as chemicals used to make it viscous enough to pump through the 237-mile-long pipeline from Montreal are burned off on the shores of Casco Bay.
“I think we have a moral imperative to really look at fossil fuels and how they will affect our children for generations to come,” said longtime board member Caroline Hendry. “I think that is an overarching issue for this whole thing.”
Hendry also raised the same trust issue posed by so many speakers at the podium.
“When I hear Portland Pipe Line Corp. say it does not have a [tar sands] project, I usually then hear ‘at this time,’ she said.
“I think we have more to lose by not taking the time to research things further,” agreed Planning Board member Kathleen Phillips. “I think there are just so many unknowns at this time. We need to understand what exactly this product is and what we are willing to undertake for the city.”
Planning Board member Susan Hasson pointed out that, in recent years, South Portland has enacted moratoriums on construction in Willard Square in order to study the presumed need for design standards, and on establishment of medial marijuana clinics, to study placement and regulation options.
“If those issues were seen as strong enough to warrant a cooling-off period, this certainly does,” she said.
Others, however, found fault with the moratorium language if not its purpose. In contrast to the way many residents reported voting against the WPO because, while they dislike the idea of tar sands flowing though local ports, they found its language to be questionable, some Planning Board members said that while they objected to how the moratorium was written, such editorial criticism was beyond their charge. The board’s sole duty, they noted, was to determine if the moratorium, however written, jibes with the city’s new comprehensive plan, adopted last year, and its current set of ordinances.
“I feel like this moratorium is a mediocre solution, because you’re basically saying, for 180 days no economic activity shall occur,” said Planning Board member Erick Giles, “But even though I think that’s a poor strategy for implementing land-use policy, and I think it’s too broad, I think it can be deemed consistent with our comprehensive plan.”
“I’m not impressed that there is an imminent threat, I’m just not,” said Planning Board Chairman Bill Laidley. “But that it [the moratorium] is consistent with the ordinances, that I agree with.”
Still, Laidley voted against the moratorium, as did Planning Board member Fred Hagan. Rob Schreiber, a professional jazz drummer who had a gig Tuesday night, arrived late to the meeting and was not allowed to comment or vote, having missed most of the proceedings.