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South Portland waterfront ordinance: Tar sands shield, or oil industry silver bullet?

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South Portland waterfront ordinance: Tar sands shield, or oil industry silver bullet?

SOUTH PORTLAND — Standing at the corner of Henley and High streets in Ferry Village on Tuesday, Cathy Chapman wondered if she could continue to live in South Portland.

Across town last month, at the Sprague Energy distribution facility on Main Street, company vice president Burt Russell wondered if his business operations will be able to expand in reaction to market changes.

Their worries stem from opposing views of the proposed Waterfront Protection Ordinance on the Nov. 5 city ballot, a debate that has produced campaign signs, street theater outside City Hall, and resignation demands in City Council chambers.

Depending on who voters believe, the ordinance revisions to Chapter 27 of the city code are either the best (and only available) method to block the importation of diluted bitumen "tar sands" oil to the city through pipelines owned by the Portland Pipe Line Corp., or the death knell for at least seven fuel distribution operations on the city waterfront because of the length and breadth of the ordinance language.

That debate played out again Monday during the public comment session at a City Council meeting, where Natalie West, the Deake Street resident and attorney who wrote the final draft, and Portland Pipe Line attorney Matt Manahan argued about the phrase "Notwithstanding any other provision of this Code," found in Section 4 (a) of the amendments.

Manahan said the phrase makes it clear the proposed ban on "enlargement or expansion of existing petroleum storage tank farms and accessory piers, pumping and distribution facilities" includes existing uses by companies in the Shipyard and shoreland areas of the city's Commercial District.

West, drawing on her experience as a city attorney for several municipalities, said the phrase clearly refers only to changes for new uses, while existing operations are also protected in other areas of Chapter 27.

Political action committees on both sides have formed, with Protect South Portland organized in support of the ordinance, and Save Our Working Waterfront dedicated to seeing it fail.

With the organizations have come accusations of outside influences playing too large a role in the debate. Ordinance opponents cite assistance received by West from national environmental groups, while supporters note Save Our Working Waterfront has raised almost $200,000 in cash and in-kind donations, including $125,000 from the American Petroleum Institute in Washington, D.C.

Chapman, who also spoke last week at a Protect South Portland press conference at the Betsy Ross House on Broadway, has supported the WPO since the petition drive launched to put the question up for council action or a referendum. Petitions were submitted June 16 to City Clerk Sue Mooney.

But Chapman's worries about possible emissions from burning off additives (including benzene) needed to move tar sands oil through the pipeline and the specter of vapor combustion units as tall as 70 feet on a pier near Bug Light Park took a more personal note after an incident she said occurred in Ferry Village in late July.

Chapman said she was visiting friends on Henley Street, adjacent to a Portland Pipe Line tank farm. As she left late in the evening, she said she heard a hissing noise coming from tank No. 28.

"I felt (my breath) catch, then the next thing I knew, I was having an asthma attack," she said. "I just kept coughing and sputtering."

Chapman does not live near the tank farm, but her mother is a Betsy Ross House resident and her children and grandchildren enjoy using the adjacent Greenbelt path, which runs along Portland Pipe Line land.

Chapman and members of Protect South Portland pointed to a Maine Department of Environmental Protection permit granted to Portland Pipe Line in 2009 for the construction of vapor combustion units and the extension of the permit through Feb. 25, 2014, as evidence the company is seeking to import tar sands oil from Montreal.

Last Thursday, company President and Chief Executive Officer Larry Wilson announced the permit has been surrendered. But Wilson has also maintained throughout the ordinance debate that reversing the flow of the pipeline to import tar sands is an option that remains open, and one he enthusiastically supports.

Russell, who said Sprague would never import tar sands oil, claims his company is delaying the third phase of a $1.5 million upgrade, where pipes will be elevated to trestles above a deteriorating bulkhead on the Fore River.

The project was put on hold until after the election, shortly after the company applied Sept. 13 to the DEP for a permit for trestle construction, Russell said.

Russell announced the stoppage at a Sept. 23 press conference at the Sprague facility, to underline the effects of the ordinance highlighted in a report by Planning Decisions economist Charles Lawton.

The report by Lawton is based on the ultimate "what-if" scenario, with all petroleum-related waterfront activities disappearing over the next decade because of the scope of the WPO.

Commissioned by the Maine Energy Marketing Association for $15,000, the findings predict the loss of 5,600 jobs and $252 million in lost wages, as well as lost property tax revenues for the city.

On Oct. 11, however, Protect South Portland released a letter from West expressing support for the Sprague expansion, suggesting the project is consistent with the ordinance. But Russell on Oct. 14 said he was not encouraged by the support.

Before Monday's council meeting, ordinance proponents and opponents rallied more support.

Councilor Jerry Jalbert and members of the United Steelworkers Union announced their opposition.

Members of the climate activism group 350 Maine engaged the public with vignettes including South Portland High School senior Nathan Rose dressed as an ExxonMobil executive to illustrate the oil company's connection to Portland Pipe Line (an ExxonMobil subsidiary is the majority owner of PPLC) .

Too young to vote this year, Rose later said he will have to deal with the consequences of the decision.

"Whatever happens Nov. 5, I'll have to see the end to it, my generation, my people," he said.

The steelworkers became the second union to publicly oppose the ordinance, after city firefighters cited the Lawton report on Oct. 15 while announcing their opposition.

Jalbert, who circulated a letter privately to Councilors Linda Cohen, Melissa Linscott, Michael Pock and Al Livingston leading to the announcement of their opposition to the ordinance on Oct. 14, was strongly criticized Monday for that effort.

"He admitted to devising a scheme to get around the public meeting law," Margaret Donahue said as she called for the resignation of city Corporation Counsel Sally Daggett for advising Jalbert on how to circulate the letter.

Cohen, who said she was not comfortable telling people how to vote, noted she expressed her opposition to the ordinance on Aug. 19 when the council voted 6-1 against adopting it. That decision ensured it would go to a referendum.

But because Councilor Patti Smith and Mayor Tom Blake have expressed public support for the WPO (Smith favored enacting the ordinance without a referendum vote), Cohen said she decided to sign the letter.

A former city clerk in South Portland and Portland, Cohen said the councilors were very careful to avoid breaking open meeting laws.

"I don't support tar sands or smoke stacks on the waterfront," Cohen said, "(But) "I won't vote to make any citizen's property nonconforming."

Jalbert, who said local tensions about the ordinance have strained his relationship with Blake, said he was allowed to consult with Daggett, but kept it brief enough to avoid the city incurring any legal fees.

He ended the discussion with a prediction:

"Regardless of what happens Nov. 5," he said, "this will end up in court."

Polls will be open Election Day from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. District 1 voters cast ballots at the Boys & Girls Club, 169 Broadway; District 2 polling is at the American Legion Hall, 413 Broadway; District 3 and 4 residents vote at the Community Center, 21 Nelson Road, and District 5 residents vote at the Redbank Community Center on MacArthur Circle West.

Absentee ballots can be obtained online or at City Hall until 6:30 p.m. Oct. 31, and must be returned by 8 p.m. on Nov. 5.

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