Editor's Notebook: A dissenting view on the Waterfront Protection Ordinance

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Remember the scene in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles,” where Sheriff Bart, played by Cleavon Little, puts his own pistol to his head, threatening to pull the trigger if the bad guys make a move?

That’s how the petroleum industry has reacted to the proposed Waterfront Protection Ordinance in South Portland. It would almost be as funny as the film, if it weren’t such an obvious attempt to scare voters into rejecting the WPO on Nov. 5.

Elsewhere on these pages you’ll find an editorial asking the city’s voters to defeat the ordinance. As editor of The Forecaster, I wrote that editorial, on behalf of the newspaper’s owners and publisher.

But as a resident of South Portland, I’m taking the unusual step of offering this dissent, to urge my neighbors to join me in voting yes, to approve the WPO.

I’ve read the proposed ordinance. It isn’t perfect. But I don’t believe it’s as flawed as opponents suggest. I’ve also read research reports, news stories and public relations backgrounders about tar sands and the WPO, and talked for hours with representatives of Protect South Portland and the Working Waterfront Coalition.

The conclusion I’ve reached is that the WPO will do what its authors intend it to do: prevent diluted, sludge-like bitumen from being piped into the city from Canada, stored in tanks, processed to remove the harmful additives used to make it move through the pipeline, and eventually loaded onto ocean-going tankers at the waterfront near Bug Light Park.

What it will not do is gut the local economy or destroy the local oil industry.

There’s nothing in the WPO that a court, reasonably intelligent city officials, or competent lawyers would ever misconstrue as forcing existing waterfront businesses of any kind out of existence.

Yes, the ordinance will restrict the growth of some oil-related businesses, but only in terms of the footprint they occupy on the city’s waterfront. They will still be able to upgrade, improve, innovate, grow their investments, earn profits and increase employment.

Portland Pipe Line Corp., whose president claims there are no immediate plans for tar sands while enthusiastically and unabashedly inviting the opportunity to pump the stuff down from Canada, could continue to offload oil tankers. Other oil and energy companies could still bring in fuel, heating oil, natural gas and other materials, and provide vessel services, to customers throughout northern New England.

What they will not be able to do is reverse the flow of the 236-mile Portland Montreal Pipeline and pump oil into tankers docked in South Portland. And they will not be able to turn empty fields at the east end of Broadway into a storage farm for tar sands oil.

Which simply means no chance to repeat the disasters that occurred last March in Mayflower, Ark., and three years ago in Marshall, Mich., communities The New York Times recently described as “stricken by oil spills (that) portend the potential hazards of transporting heavy Canadian crude.”

“River and floodplain ecosystems have had to be restored, and neighborhoods are still being refurbished,” the Times reported in August. “Legal battles are being waged, and residents’ lives have been forever changed.”

How important is the city vote? Other communities in the pipeline path have voted to express opposition to reversing the flow to accommodate tar sands. But because there is no local jurisdiction over the federally regulated pipeline, those votes are nonbinding.

Thanks to its waterfront oversight at the pipeline terminus, however, South Portland has a unique opportunity to take a stand that matters, one that says the threat to the environment and health presented by tar sands oil – from its production, to its transportation, to the cost of cleaning it up when it spills – is too great to ignore.

Why else would the oil industry have amassed six times as much money to defeat the ordinance as WPO proponents have raised? City residents should recognize that the claims of massive destruction of the local economy are part of a slick, oil industry-funded campaign based on a self-fulfilling doomsday scenario: the shutdown of all businesses on the waterfront.

It is the pistol the petroleum industry is holding to its own head, and Mel Brooks couldn’t have written it any better.

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Mo Mehlsak is editor of The Forecaster. He can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 107 or mmehlsak@theforecaster.net. You can also follow Mo on Twitter: @mmehlsak.

Editor of The Forecaster; prior reporting/editing gigs at Automotive Age magazine, Daily News of Los Angeles, Biddeford Journal Tribune; Syracuse U. Orange-bleeder; lifelong NY Yankees fan, longtime resident of Red Sox Nation.