PORTLAND — The election of a trustee for the Portland Water District may not be the first decision voters consider when they cast ballots on Nov. 6, but the candidates believe it’s an important one.
Incumbent Gary Libby, who has served as a trustee for 18 years, is seeking re-election against challenger Nisha Swinton. The winner will serve as one of the city’s four elected representatives on the district’s 11-member Board of Trustees.
Libby admits that the office of trustee is low-profile. “It’s a little like getting elected dog catcher,” he said with a laugh. But the work of the trustees is no joking matter, he said.
The board governs a quasi-public agency that provides water services to Portland and 10 surrounding communities. With an annual budget of more than $35 million, PWD is responsible for safeguarding the area’s primary water supply at Sebago Lake, delivering clean tap water through a 1,000-mile network of mains, and disposing of waste water from six of the member communities, including Portland.
Trustees are elected from each member community on the basis of its population, and serve staggered, five-year terms.
Libby, 65, is a self-employed lawyer whose background in labor law prompted him to run for the board in 1994, when PWD was involved in a dispute with an employee union. Libby believes his experience since then makes him the best candidate for trustee.
“I’ve developed a deep familiarity with (water) issues over the years, and so I believe I’m the best person to do the job,” he said.
Swinton, 28, has never held elected office. But as an environmental lawyer and the Maine organizer for consumer advocacy group Food & Water Watch, she is no stranger to water-related issues.
“The Portland Water District has done amazing work, and Gary (Libby) is an amazing person. But it will be good to get new folks on the board,” she said. “And I think my background, working on water policy at the state and national level, will allow me to push (PWD) a little further.”
Both candidates oppose the attempt by a Canadian oil company, Enbridge Energy Partners, to pump “tar sands” oil through the Sebago Lake watershed.
Enbridge is proposing to pump tar sands, a mix of oil, sand and clay, from Canada to Portland through the 71-year-old Portland-Montreal Pipeline. Because it is more corrosive than other forms of crude oil, the thick goo could force the pipeline to spring a leak, some experts say.
“If such a break occurs in the pipeline in the Sebago Lake watershed, particularly where the pipeline crosses Panther Run, a tributary which enters Sebago Lake in Raymond, tar sands oil could cause catastrophic damage to our water source,” Libby said in a letter to The Forecaster.
Swinton agreed, saying, “When you put that stuff through an old pipeline that’s right near Sebago, well, that’s really not a good idea.”
If elected, Swinton said she also would pursue other steps to protect the purity of Portland’s water. For example, she would like to see PWD reconsider the level of fluoride it adds to the Sebago Lake water supply.
Fluoride has been added to the lake’s water since 1997, as required by a public referendum. But Swinton said, “Based on my conservation experience, I’m concerned about the health risks of any chemicals we put in our water.”
If he is re-elected, Libby said he would continue to try to keep water rates low for area residents. He noted that as a trustee he encouraged PWD to choose a new biosolid waste contractor for its water treatment facility in the East End – a change that is saving the district $350,000 a year, he said.
But he said he also supports investing in long-term measures to safeguard the water system, such as borrowing money at currently low interest rates to fund the ongoing replacement of aging water mains.
“There’s never going to be a cheaper time to do it,” he said.