South Portland group seeks to ban tar sands shipments

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Definite plans to bring Canadian “tar sands” oil to the city are not in place. But an ordinance to ban storage of oil brought in by pipline or loading it onto tankers could be on the Nov. 5 city ballot.

A petition drive by Concerned Citizens of South Portland was announced Thursday to get a public vote on the ordinance changes, which are designed to ban any tar sands oil imports.

“We ask all citizens of South Portland to stand with us to protect our community. Please sign the petition to qualify this citizen’s initiative for the ballot and vote yes on the Waterfront Protection Ordinance in November,” said the group’s co-chairman, Robert Sellin, at a news conference.

To make the ballot, the petition will need a little more than 900 signatures, or 5 percent of registered city voters, according to City Clerk Sue Mooney. Once the signatures are certified, the City Council must act in 60 days to accept it as written or place it on a referendum ballot.

Concerned Citizens of South Portland is a group formed this spring to fight efforts to import tar sands oil through the 236-mile Portland Pipe Line Corp. pipelines running from the city to Montreal.

Group members are seeking signatures to forward a ballot question that would ban loading petroleum products into dockside ships in South Portland, and storing petroleum products unloaded or received from any source except dockside ships.

The proposed changes affect Chapter 27 of the South Portland Municipal Code and are accompanied by proposed bans on expanding “existing petroleum storage tank farms and accessory piers, pumping and distribution facilities, or facilities for the storing and handling of petroleum and/or petroleum products” in the city Shipyard District or shoreline areas of commercial districts.

The ban on expansion and enlargement would effectively stop any proposed construction of vapor combustion towers as high as 70 feet needed to burn off components found in the oil extracted from fields in Alberta.

A news release from Concerned Citizens opposes the towers because of emissions the group claims would harm air quality and because of a possible location on the waterfront between Bug Light and Spring Point Ledge Light.

The towers were approved by the Planning Board in 2009, but the building permits have since expired.

In a March 11 workshop, Portland Pipe Line Corp. President Larry Wilson said there are no current plans to reverse the flow in one of the pipes to receive oil from Montreal, but he is open to the possibility.

“We don’t have an opportunity yet, but we would love to,” he said.

Opponents of importing tar sands oil, including Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said tar sands oil is too corrosive and difficult to extract, and contains additives for dilution that make spills more difficult to clean up.

Mayor Tom Blake called for the workshop to give opposing sides an opportunity to express themselves, but City Manager Jim Gailey has noted there is little city officials could currently do to regulate the flow of tar sands oil.

Company supporters, including former councilors Linda Boudreau and Maxine Beecher said Portland Pipe Line’s safety record and community involvement merit the benefit of the doubt.

While South Portland is the pipeline terminus, the route of the pipelines north and west through Raymond near Sebago Lake and along the Crooked River toward the New Hampshire border makes a spill especially risky. 

At Thursday’s news conference, city resident Art Dysinger, a member of the Sebago Lake Angler’s Association, said he feared the effects of a local spill of tar sands oil.

“A tar sands spill in Sebago Lake is almost unthinkable. This project is not worth the risk it poses to our fisheries and our drinking water. I know Sebago Lake could never go back to what it is today,” he said.

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

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.