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South Portland councilors oppose waterfront ordinance; antagonists offer competing gestures

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South Portland councilors oppose waterfront ordinance; antagonists offer competing gestures

SOUTH PORTLAND — Supporters and opponents of the proposed Waterfront Protection Ordinance spent the week shoring up support for their positions while attempting to discredit criticism from foes.

By Thursday, five city councilors, unionized city firefighters, two chambers of commerce, and harbor commissioners announced their opposition to the proposed amendments to Chapter 27 of the city code, which supporters say are designed to block the import of diluted bitumen, or tar sands oil, via 236 miles of pipe lines owned by Portland Pipe Line Co.

Ordinance supporters, including Natalie West, the attorney who wrote the ballot proposal, issued a letter supporting an expansion and upgrade project at the Sprague Energy facility on Main Street – in part to combat what they said is a stream of misinformation funded by oil companies opposed to the WPO.

The Sprague project is a three-phase, $1.5 million proposal that Sprague Vice President Burton Russell said was put on hold until after the Nov. 5 referendum.

"This is the kind of maintenance and improvement project that we welcome and support along our industrial waterfront," West said in the letter to Code Enforcement Officer Pat Doucette.

West's support of the upgrade of Sprague infrastructure did not impress Russell, who Monday said at least five upgrade projects since 1996 would have been blocked if the ordinance had been place.

Members of Protect South Portland, including Mayor Tom Blake, met with The Forecaster editorial board Oct. 11. They argued that existing businesses are allowed to expand in the Shipyard and shoreline areas of commercial districts, while a proposed ban on new pumping facilities and loading petroleum products into docked ships is specific in its intent to block tar sands.

Protect South Portland also produced a legal analysis signed by former Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Pidot, University of Maine law professor (and columnist for The Forecaster) Orlando Delogu,  former state Sen. Philip Bartlett, and attorney Russell Pierce Jr. of Norman Hanson & Detroy, supporting the argument the ordinance will not prevent current uses at waterfront oil distribution facilities.

"Suggesting that the (Waterfront Protection Ordinance) would have broad negative impacts on existing waterfront businesses is an exaggeration and not credible," the analysis concluded. "(They are) misinterpretations of the Ordinance language – misinterpretations that would never be indulged by a court of law, and that we trust would not be indulged by City officials charged with the ordinance enforcement once it is passed."

Ordinance supporters said a $15,000 study commissioned by Save Our Working Waterfront and written by economist Charles Lawton of Portland-based Planning Decisions is based on a false premise – that the entire oil-related industry on the waterfront will shut down because of the WPO – and is being used to scare voters with claims that 5,600 jobs and $252 million in income will be lost.

On Monday, Portland Pipe Line President and CEO Larry Wilson told The Forecaster editorial board he will seek to terminate an emissions permit from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection sought for the construction of vapor combustion units needed to burn off additives to tar sands oil before it is shipped.

Ordinance supporters have pointed to the permit for two, 70-foot units on a company pier near Bug Light Park as proof of the company's intentions. They also say the units would create a health hazard because of volatile organic compounds that would be emitted.

The permit was granted in 2009, and extended in August 2012 through Feb. 25, 2014. Wilson said he will speak to DEP officials about terminating the permit, or let it expire to show his company has no immediate plans to reverse the flow of a pipeline to Montreal so tar sands oil can be shipped south and exported from South Portland.

But Wilson did not back away from his interest in reversing the flow to bring in Canadian oil.

“I'm not going to tell you I will never move (tar sands),” he said.

Blake and Councilor Patti Smith are now in a clear minority on the council in supporting the ordinance, with the release Monday by Councilor Jerry Jalbert of a letter he signed with Councilors Linda Cohen, Melissa Linscott, Al Livingston and Michael Pock.

"The proposed Waterfront Protection Ordinance does not protect the waterfront of South Portland," the letter said. "Instead of banning a product, the proposed ordinance is a land use ordinance that can have a negative effect on our working waterfront and does not protect the blue-collar jobs of the working waterfront."

Jalbert said the letter was signed independently without a meeting of the councilors, after he consulted city Corporation Counsel Sally Daggett on how not to violate open-meeting laws.

The letter disappointed Rob Sellin of Protect South Portland, the organization working for passage of the ordinance. He said he offered to meet each councilor and explain why the opposition claims about potential job losses are false.

"It was a back-room, electronically generated letter, absolutely against the spirit of public access law," Sellin said Tuesday.

Sellin and other Protect South Portland members were also on hand Tuesday when former city Fire Chief Phil McGouldrick and current members of Local 1476 of the International Association of Fire Fighters called for voters to defeat the WPO. They said it would hinder waterfront safety because of mandated halts to expansions and upgrades.

The union vote against the ordinance was 24-4 with one abstention, South Portland Fire Department Lt. Robb Couture said Wednesday.

"I have never seen a bigger threat to our traditions and way of life," McGouldrick said.

Sellin said he was disappointed by the union vote because the safety concerns fail to account for the potential health hazards of emissions from burning off additives necessary to make the dense tar sands oil flow through the pipeline.

The health concerns were emphasized at a Thursday press conference with local physicians and residents at the Betsy Ross House on Broadway at Preble Street. The senior living high-rise abuts a field owned by Portland Pipe Line; WPO proponents believe the field is where the company would build tar sands storage tanks and infrastructure.

The South Portland/Cape Elizabeth Chamber of Commerce, Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, Maine Motor Transport Association, and Portland Harbor Commission are among the groups that have recently joined the WPO opposition.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.