South Portland mulls tar sands findings

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Although the City Council accepted recommendations of the Draft Ordinance Committee earlier this year, the council was not as eager to act on the issues brought forth during a Sept. 22 workshop.

The DOC was formed in February to tackle issues around the potential pumping of tar sands oil. Members David Critchfield and Russell Pierce Jr. explained that, after completing research, the committee felt there were still some issues they “couldn’t close the book on,” but of which councilors should be aware.

Zoning amendments

The first recommendation was that the council consider zoning changes or amendments to the 2012 Comprehensive Plan update, regarding the Hill Street Tank Farm and the Shipyard Development District.

The committee said that the tank farm should be designated a nonresidential, nonconforming-use zone, which would allow the current owner and any subsequent owners to continue lawful use of the property, including the storage of crude oil.

Currently, the area is included in the Marine Industrial District, which would allow more leeway for owners to construct another industrial facility in the future, should current operations cease. Designating the area as a nonconforming-use zone would allow the city to reevaluate it, Pierce said, and choose not to continue using the area for industrial purposes.

The committee recommended that the vacant portion of the Portland Pipe Line property, at Broadway and Pickett Street, be removed from the Shipyard Development District and made part of the Pickett Street Neighborhood Center area. That way, the vacant portion would not be used for industry in the future.

Pierce explained that fugitive emissions from both facilities have negative impacts on the surrounding areas, which are mostly residential. The tank farm is bounded by the Pleasantdale-Elm/Hill Neighborhood Center and the Evans Neighborhood Center, and is also close to South Portland High School and the Community Center. The Shipyard Development District is close to the Pickett Street Neighborhood Center.

“The city should not be planning to maintain heavy industrial uses in the middle of, or surrounded by, residential districts,” Pierce said.

It’s also hard to attract families to the residential areas when there are industrial complexes near schools and other community buildings, he said.

Councilor Linda Cohen said that while she understood the concerns about pollution and safety, she did not support changing the zoning. Non-conforming use status would allow the problem to persist. Several other councilors agreed and expressed appreciation for the research done, but didn’t think that changing the zoning would solve the problem.

Financial assurance

The committee also recommended that the council look into evaluating financial assurance mechanisms for the proper closure of marine terminals.

According to the recommendation, “The Maine Oil Discharge Prevention and Pollution Control Regulation (through the Department of Environmental Protection/DEP)  requires marine terminal facilities with storage capacity greater than 63,000 gallons to document that operators have at least $2 million worth of financial assurance to pay for proper closure of the oil storage terminals.”

Portland Pipe Line’s storage tank facilities are subject to the DEP’s financial assurance requirements. However, the company’s transmission pipeline, mainline valves and other “discrete elements” are not.

The recommendation went on to read: “South Portland officials cannot independently verify privately held corporations’ representations that they have the capability to pay $2 million for proper closure, much less the actual costs of proper closure based on an independent engineering assessment of decommissioning, demolition, clean up and post-clean up monitoring once operations have been discontinued.”

The recommendation cited the 2013 Lac-Megantic rail derailment, in which the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway went bankrupt and the cost of clean-up and damages fell on taxpayers, as an example of the need for financial assurance.

“I think we need to ensure that our residents are not going to be stuck with these long-term financial responsibilities,” Councilor Tom Blake said.

On April 30, the DOC sent an information request to the Maine DEP, asking about the assurance requirements, where the $2 million cap came from, and if an engineering assessment could be performed by a municipality. The committee did not receive a response.

Several councilors expressed uncertainty as to whether liability falls under the council’s purview. Cohen suggested that the members review the state policy and reevaluate afterwards.

Currently, Cohen said, the council had “more questions than answers.”

“One thing I’ve heard tonight … is a clear call from the citizenry for more information,” Blake said.

Blake suggested that Mayor Gerry Jalbert or Town Manager James Gailey send another letter to the DEP to get answers. The rest of the council was in favor as well, although no official vote could be taken during the workshop.

Air monitoring

Finally, the DOC recommended that the city require installation of an ambient air monitoring system to protect public health.The monitoring program would “ensure that point source and fugitive emissions from crude oil storage terminals have no undue adverse impact on public health.”

In addition, the committee said that the council should establish a review process within the city’s site plan approval procedures to make sure that DEP emission licenses are accurate.

Critchfield and Pierce said that this element of their recommendations was supported by constituents. Public testimony seemed to bear that out.

Resident Karen Sanford said, “We just have to know what we’re breathing and hope our city can tell us.” She added that the Preble Street area, where she lives, was very loud last year and that many medical issues were caused by emissions.

Katherine Chapman agreed: “It’s common sense to know what we’re breathing.”

Blake suggested that private consultants, as well as officials from the DEP and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, be contacted.

Jalbert said that air monitoring is typically regional, and might not be effective in an area as small as South Portland. Even if pollution was detected, it would be difficult to determine the source. He suggested that the council reach out to the DEP about this issue as well, to see what can be done on a regular basis.

Councilor Melissa Linscott agreed, while Councilor Maxine Beecher said she appreciated the information but was not prepared to move forward.

With its work complete, the DOC was disbanded, and Jalbert said that the council will arrange for proper recognition of the committee in the near future.

Blake said that while the council was not taking action, he was glad a dialogue about the issues had been raised. There was talk of the issues being discussed in future workshops as well, although the dates have not yet been set.

Lily O’Gara can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or logara@theforecaster.net.

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