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Tar sands ban goes to November ballot in South Portland

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Tar sands ban goes to November ballot in South Portland

SOUTH PORTLAND — A Waterfront Protection Ordinance designed to stop any flow of tar sands oil in the city will be on the Nov. 5 ballot as a citizen-initiated referendum question.

City Councilors on Monday unanimously voted to place the referendum question on the ballot, after voting 5-1 against enacting the ordinance themselves. Councilor Patti Smith was the only vote to enact the ordinance; Councilor Michael Pock was absent.

The 5 1/2-hour meeting at Mahoney Middle School was held in front of a crowd of more than 350 people.

"I don't believe the waterfront will shut down, I don't believe businesses will be running scared," Smith said, vowing her "100 percent support" for the measure.

Mayor Tom Blake, who with his wife, Dee Dee, was the last of nearly 3,800 residents to sign the ordinance petition before it was submitted two months ago, also pledged to support the ordinance, even though he voted not to enact it unilaterally.

The ordinance would amend Chapter 27 of the city code and prohibit either the loading of petroleum products into tankers, or expansion of petroleum storage tanks and distribution facilities, in the Ferry Village area and the city's shoreland commercial areas.

Supporters of the ordinance fear the potential environmental damage of a spill anywhere along the 72-year-old pipeline, and the release of airborne contaminants, including benzene, as the additives used to make the sludge-like oil easier to pump are burned off at the South Portland terminal.

The prospect of tar sands oil being stored at Portland Pipe Line's Hill Street tank farm near James O. Kaler School before it is sent to piers via pipelines passing through city neighborhoods and near the Betsy Ross House senior housing on Broadway drew alarm, too.

“What is a dollar worth without clean air? What is a dollar worth without clean water?" Smith said.

Ocean View Avenue resident Bill Duffy said the ordinance protects current business activity and the city from receiving Canadian tar sands oil, extracted from bituminous slurry in Alberta, for export overseas.

"It's a heavy, black viscous substance," Duffy said, quoting the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Robert Sellin, co-chairman of Concerned Citizens of South Portland, which presented the petition, said citizen input is needed to protect the city from tar sands oil.

"If you do not have a seat at the table of power, you will be on the menu," he said.

Ordinance foes said the broad ordinance text will prevent all city petroleum related businesses from expanding to meet market or regulatory requirements.

Most councilors, however, expressed reservations.

"I don't think I want tar sands in South Portland, but this ordinance just goes way too far," Councilor Linda Cohen said. "It is going to have unintended consequences that will be devastating to the city and will last a long long time."

Councilor Al Livingston, echoing comments from Loveitt's Field Road resident John Howard, said voters should carefully study the ordinance because it never specifically mentions tar sands oil.

"Tar sands is one of the worst energy alternatives imaginable, but shame on me," Howard said, "I didn't read the ordinance before signing."

Noting the Comprehensive Plan enacted last October supports improving marine-related and waterfront industries, Livingston concluded his comments with a plea:

"Citizens of South Portland, do your homework, don't get misled," he said.

Councilor Melissa Linscott said she has been looking for a solution to satisfy all parties, and was unable to find it in the proposed ordinance.

"I don't want to see tar sands come to the city, but I do have concerns about the way this ordinance is written," Linscott said.

Before the vote at about 11 p.m., councilors heard comments from about 70 people.

Larry Wilson, Portland Pipe Line Co. president and chief executive, said there is no plan to import the oil or build the 70-foot vapor combustion units approved by the Planning Board in 2009 for installation on a company pier near Bug Light.

He vowed any consideration to bring in the oil would be fully vetted and keep the city's best interests at heart.

“We would not pursue any project you are not aligned with and we are not compliant with,” Wilson said.

Deake Street resident Peter Stanton took little comfort in Wilson's words and claims tar sands oil is little different from other grades of crude oil.

"It makes my hair stand on end," he said, because while tar sands oil may have the same components, it has them in different proportions and is known to sink quickly if spilled.

Carol Masterson, who helped organize the petition drive, also took exception to Wilson's vow, noting Portland Pipe Line lawyer Matt Manahan, when he spoke before the Planning Board Aug. 13, promised a court challenge if the ordinance passes.

Manahan on Wednesday denied the lawsuit threat. He said he specifically said legal challenges could come from supporters if the ordinance was passed by councilors and later amended without being put to a public vote.

But previously, Manahan was clear about his belief the ordinance would not withstand legal challenges as written because it is inconsistent with the Comprehensive Plan.

"There is no case that has gone before the Maine supreme court as clear as this one," he said at the Aug. 13 Planning Board hearing.

Manahan and Irving Oil lawyer Jim Katsiaficas said sections of the proposed ordinance ensure waterfront petroleum industries will be unable to expand and improve, regardless of tar sands oil.

Cape Elizabeth lawyer David Lourie, who composed the initial draft ordinance to specifically ban tar sands oil importation through the pipeline, and South Portland lawyer Natalie West, who wrote the final draft, said the text clearly protects existing uses and will not block expansions needed for safety and other reasons.

Besides the Waterfront Protection Ordinance, the Nov. 5 city ballot will include a $14 million bond question for a new public works and transportation facility, the election of city councilors to seats now held by Blake and Livingston, and three School Board seats.

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