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South Portland plans war chest to defend tar sands ban against possible lawsuit

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South Portland plans war chest to defend tar sands ban against possible lawsuit

SOUTH PORTLAND — The ordinance that bars tar sands oil from the city may have only passed on July 21, but the city is already preparing for a legal challenge from the oil industry.

In the City Council's workshop Monday, Aug. 11, which coincided with the Clear Skies Ordinance's first official day as law, councilors agreed to move forward with a a special legal fund to defend against a lawsuit from Portland Pipeline Corp.

City staff and councilors said Monday they have received almost daily right-to-know requests from PPL attorney Matt Manahan since July 31, seeking all materials "relating in any way to the Waterfront Protection Ordinance and its progeny," the Clear Skies Ordinance. They seek information from as far back as October 2013. 

The CSO was the result of a year-long local initiative to prevent PPL from reversing its pipeline to Montreal for transport of Canadian tar sands to Portland for export.

Opponents of tar sands feared the reversal would have negative implications for air quality, because of action required at the export terminal, and that the tar sands – the common term for diluted bitumen, a thick form of crude oil mixed with clay and sand – could increase the possibility of a leak in the pipeline.

The CSO is a collection of zoning amendments prohibiting "the bulk loading of crude oil onto marine vessels" in specific city zones and the construction of any buildings or equipment associated with that use.

Local oil officials overwhelmingly opposed the ordinance because they believe it limits their business expansion opportunities and could jeopardize waterfront jobs.

In a prepared statement on the Freedom of Access Act requests, Jim Merrill, another attorney and spokesman for PPL, said the company seeks public information on the CSO's process and passage as they "evaluate several options concerning this job-killing ordinance."

"Given the bias plainly apparent throughout this process, the public at-large and the businesses most adversely affected by the CSO deserve to have a complete understanding of what has transpired, so that they continue to have confidence in the objective and impartial operation of the City of South Portland,” Merrill said in a prepared statement.

Because the city would likely face a lengthy, locally divisive lawsuit, Mayor Jerry Jalbert and City Manager Jim Gailey said Monday they want to begin a special city legal fund reserved specifically for defending the CSO, preferably one funded in part by online donations.

If they can depend on donations from sympathetic residents, environmental groups and law firms, councilors agreed, the city could avoid using taxpayer dollars to defend the ordinance.

"We don’t want this falling on the taxpayers," Councilor Linda Cohen said. "On any given day, 49 to 51 percent of taxpayers in the city may have opposing views on this ordinance."

Councilor Tom Blake urged the council to reach out to PPL about how the city can help the business "continue to thrive in our community" and keep lines of communication open to avoid a lawsuit.

"I'm not convinced we're getting sued ... I don't believe we've done anything wrong," Blake said. 

In the coming weeks, Gailey said city staff will try to arrange a meeting with PPL, and will establish a legal fund for donations. 

The council also tentatively scheduled the special three-member Draft Ordinance Committee, which created the CSO, for a Sept. 22 workshop to discuss the additional three recommendations they drafted in addition to the CSO.

The proposals recommended for further action are rezoning of the Hill Street Tank Farm and the Pickett Street neighborhood center, financial assurance in case marine oil terminals close, and consideration of a local air quality monitoring system.

Gardens

In other business, councilors indicated their support for expanding the Community Garden Collective to a second 39-lot garden in the Redbank neighborhood.

In addition to requesting a second location, CGC, which has operated a Hamlin School garden for three years, wants to renew the lease at Hamlin for five years and add five more beds to accommodate the program's wait list. 

The second location at Redbank Community Park could be funded with Community Development Block Grants, Parks and Recreation Director Rick Towle said. CGC members said they are in the process of canvassing the Redbank neighborhood to weigh interest.

In a future meeting, Gailey said the council will take official action to make the project expansion happen. 

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or scarignan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.