SOUTH PORTLAND — An organization founded five years ago to keep tar sands from being piped through the city wrapped up a busy year of environmental activism by being named Maine’s Local Hero by the Conservation Law Foundation.
The award was a first for both Boston-based nonprofit CLF and the winner, Protect South Portland.
Sean Mahoney, executive vice president and director of CLF Maine, said CLF hosts an event every other year to recognize those who support its mission to “protect New England’s environment … by (using) the law, science and the market to create solutions that preserve our natural resources, build healthy communities, and sustain a vibrant economy.”
Although they also partner with national and regional groups, Mahoney said CLF decided to focus this year’s gala, held Dec. 3 at Boston’s Federal Courthouse, on “local heroes” – one group or individual from each of the six states.
“We really wanted to celebrate the local groups because that’s really where the rubber meets the road,” Mahoney said. “If you really want to effect change you need committed people.”
Mary Jane Ferrier, who has been involved with PSP since it was formed in 2013, said it all began when it became known that Portland Pipe Line Corp. intended to reverse the flow of a 236-mile pipeline that has carried foreign crude from harbor terminals in South Portland to refineries in Montreal since World War II.
The news caused an uproar from local residents and environmental watchdog groups that braved January cold to march from Portland City Hall to the harbor in protest.
“It made a big splash,” Ferrier recalled.
But for many, a single demonstration wasn’t enough. So a group organized at PSP founder Rachel Burger’s house. From there, members began attending meetings of the City Council to express their concerns.
“The basic message was, ‘We don’t want that in our city,'” Ferrier said. “So we mobilized.”
The group had an attorney draft the Waterfront Protection Ordinance that was sent to a referendum in November 2013. Each weekend during the preceding summer, Ferrier said, volunteers from all over the region would meet at PSP’s small office in Knightville, then take to the streets to knock on doors and urge residents to support the referendum.
There was opposition from Portland Pipe Line and its allies, and the opposition prevailed at the polls.
What happened next, Ferrier said, was an indelible demonstration of democracy.
“People who were unaware of what was going on became educated and alert,” she said. “They began calling their city councilors and talking to them, so the day after the election, the City Council called an emergency meeting where they voted for a six-month moratorium on any building along the waterfront … shutting down any immediate possibility of pipeline reversal for the time being.”
The council ended up forming a committee to craft an ordinance that would prohibit bulk loading of crude oil onto tankers on the city’s waterfront. Members of PSP remained involved by writing letters to newspapers, lobbying councilors and attending meetings until a draft ordinance was proposed in summer 2014.
The council eventually passed the Clear Skies Ordinance that year, but the group’s work was not over.
In February 2015, Portland Pipe Line sued the city to overturn the ordinance. It took more than three years for the U.S. District Court to rule in the city’s favor, which happened in August.
On Nov. 7, attorneys for Portland Pipe Line filed a notice of appeal to overturn the court’s ruling, which, Ferrier said, is now waiting to be heard by the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.
Ferrier said she and the rest of PSP’s membership will continue to rally people to donate the city’s Clear Skies Defense Fund. So far, the fund has netted more than $172000, but Ferrier said it was more about the “amount of people who contributed than the amount of money.”
City Manager Scott Morelli said PSP has done a “wonderful job” helping to raise funds. “We … appreciate their efforts to help support and promote our sustainability efforts,” he said.
Although the pipeline has been a top PSP priority, the group has also focused on other sustainability efforts, including helping the city promote an ordinance to restrict the use of toxic pesticides for all turf, landscape and outdoor pest management activities, which passed in September 2016.
“Our role has been to be the leaven that gets people educated, aware and active,” Ferrier said, noting around 1,000 people have subscribed to the group’s newsletter. “The award from CLF is a big deal in the sense that it’s validated the work we do.”
Mahoney also noted that what stood out to CLF about PSP was the fact that the group is made up of people from “all segments of the community.”
“They’re not a bunch of tree-hugging environmentalists,” he said. “They just genuinely care about the future of their community.”
Ferrier, a retired psychologist, agreed.
“The world just matters a lot to me,” she said. “… And in the world we are living in now, what is important is the idea that people in the streets, your neighbors, can all join together and get something done. There is very little that can’t be accomplished if the people work together.”
The Conservation Law Foundation named Protect South Portland a Local Hero for the state of Maine at a gala in Boston on Dec. 3. PSP members Roberta Zuckermann, front left, Mary Jane Ferrier and Rachel Burger accepted the award from CLF President Brad Campbell, rear left, and CLF Maine Executive Vice President and Director Sean Mahoney.