Tar sands committee work draws applause and praise

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Recommendations from the special Draft Ordinance Committee on how best to keep tar sands out of the city received a standing ovation from residents at a June 5 public forum. 

“The cheese is moving,” committee facilitator Jeff Edelstein said of the group’s progress. 

After months of research, hours of presentations, and more than 7,000 of pages of documents, the three-member committee finally completed a draft recommendation and posted it on the city website on May 30 to receive public input.

The committee, made up of Michael Conathan, staffer for former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snow; David Critchfield, founder of an environmental liability acquisition company, and Portland attorney Russell Pierce, and facilitator Jeff Edelstein, listened to just over an hour of comments from residents on their proposed changes to the city’s code of ordinances.

The advised amendments would prohibit the “bulk loading of crude oil onto any marine tank vessel” and construction of new structures or equipment “including but not limited to those with the potential to emit air pollutants, for the purpose of bulk loading of crude oil onto marine tank vessels” from several city zones. 

The committee also recommended the council review zoning at Hill Street tank farm and and look more into air quality and financial assurance regulations.

City Councilors formed the committee to devise a new approach to preventing tar sands importation after a citizen-initiated ordinance amendment was narrowly defeated in a referendum last November. The changes would have prevented Portland Pipe Line Corp. from building needed infrastructure to import tar sands from Canada.

Opponents of allowing tar sands into the city fear environmental consequences of storing and transporting the unrefined oil, particularly because of risks of air pollution and the possibility of a leak in the pipeline. 

Portland Pipe Line had an air emissions license to reverse the pipeline, but relinquished the permit shortly before the November vote. Representatives have said there are no concrete plans to reverse the pipeline but the company remains open to the opportunity.

Twenty members of the public came forward to speak to the committee. A few gave suggestions on possible minor additions to the recommendations, but most took the time to simply commend the committee on their work.

Two residents, Charles Higgins of Ledge Road and Andy Jones of High Street, pointed out the gravity of the changes the committee hopes to make, both locally and nationally.

“When this is all said and done, we’ll be an example to the nation,” Jones said. 

Jones recalled how the tar sands debate that split the city last summer. 

“It was pretty divisive, but I don’t think the four of you recognize the role you’ve played in the healing process,” he said. 

Emily Figdor, director of Environment Maine, congratulated the committee on what she called the most transparent, inclusive and thorough process she had ever been a part of, and offered up a few suggestions. First, she said, include the familiar phrase for the crude oil “tar sands,” now omitted from the ordinance changes. 

“If someone picks up the ordinance and reads it, they likely will not know that diluted bitumen is a form of tar sands, and they may have trouble understanding,” she said.

One dissenter, Chris Owen, of Steep Falls, spoke against the ordinance changes. 

“By pushing this ordinance, you’re saying no to future prosperity, jobs,” he said. 

Each committee member also thanked the public for their support.

“South Portland is a great place to live,” Critchfield said. “It takes a lot of work to take care of it.”

Once the public comment period ends Friday, the group will reconvene and tweak their recommendations based on public response in a meeting June 19, with the goal of presenting their work to the City Council in a workshop on June 25. 

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or scarignan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.