South Portland has allies against Portland Pipe Line lawsuit

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Proponents of the city’s Clear Skies Ordinance this week said they will help the city fight an oil and shipping industry lawsuit that seeks to overturn the law.

“Certainly we were prepared for this and knew that it certainly could happen,” Mary-Jane Ferrier of Protect South Portland said Wednesday of the lawsuit filed Feb. 6 in U.S. District Court in Portland by Portland Pipeline Corp. and American Waterways Operators, which is the national advocate for the nation’s coastal and inland tugboat, towboat and barge industry. 

Code Enforcement Officer Patricia Doucette is a co-defendant in the lawsuit that targets the July 2014 Clear Skies Ordinance

Passed 6-1 by city councilors, the ordinance authorizes the restriction of “bulk loading” of unrefined tar sands onto “marine tank vessels” at the city’s port, along with all related infrastructure.

The ordinance was drafted by a council-designated Draft Ordinance Committee that sought to bring to light the environmental dangers associated with tar sands, and the possibility that the diluted bitumen would be piped from Canada to South Portland for shipment overseas.

The lawsuit claims “one-third of the oil imported into the United States comes from Canada; that Canada respects the environment and existing regulations that are in place; and that the Ordinance reflect a misunderstanding of Canada’s oil sands product.”

It says the Clear Skies Ordinance violates “multiple provisions of the U.S. and Maine constitutions, as well as federal and state statutes.” 

Approximately 50 ships now unload crude oil in South Portland annually, according to the court documents. That oil is then pumped to Quebec by Portland Pipe Line at a rate of 2.4 million barrels per month. 

By limiting the flow of bulk hydrocarbons through the pipeline, the company claims the ordinance “immediately and currently reduces the current market value of PPLC’s pipelines and hinders its ability to engage in interstate and international commerce.”

It is not yet known who will represent South Portland in the lawsuit. It is expected, but not certain, that the city will seek legal counsel from the Maine Municipal Association. Those in support of the city and the ordinance, however, are already beginning to rally support.

“We’re quite prepared,” Taryn Hallweaver, director of Environment Maine, said. “There are a number of organizations in support of the public and Protect South Portland.”

Given the “enormous support” for the ordinance last July, Ferrier said it is particularly disappointing that, after the PPLC has “billed itself as a good citizen and a good neighbor in the city, would then oppose the will of the people.”

“It’s not terribly surprising, but it is really disappointing that they’re going to challenge what I think is a really clear and overwhelming decision by the community,” said Dylan Voorhees, director of the Clean Energy and Global Warming project for the Natural Resources Council of Maine

“There’s an opportunity for parties that have an interest to intervene on one side or the other,” Voorhees said. “NRCM has a lot of members in South Portland and we have demonstrated an interest in the outcome and ordinance so we can and will file to be an intervenor in the lawsuit.

“We certainly have an interest in the city being able to mount as robust as a defense of its ordinance as it can. Beyond that, we can play a role directly with our lawyers in the case and bolster the arguments by bringing expertise and ultimately making it more likely that the city will prevail,” he said. 

“There was a part of us that hoped it might not come to this and that the company and the oil industry would put more stake in the will of the people and their elected officials,” Voorhees said, “but that’s not the path they’ve chosen.”

At Monday’s City Council workshop, councilors met in an emergency executive session to discuss the lawsuit, but did reconvene to take any action. 

Several attempts to reach Portland Pipe Line attorney Catherine Connors and City Manager Jim Gailey this week were unsuccessful. Doucette was out of town.

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.  

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South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.