SOUTH PORTLAND – A group of South Portland residents hoping to block the transport of tar sands oil from Canada to Maine say they have collected enough signatures to include a citizens’ initiative on city ballots this November.
The group, Concerned Citizens of South Portland, announced in front of city hall June 6, they would begin collecting signatures for an ordinance change that would prevent Portland Pipe Line Corp. from bringing oil sands to Casco Bay.
The group needed to collect 950 signatures to propose an ordinance change on the ballot this fall. According to the city charter, a petition needs to be signed by 5 percent of the 19,000 “qualified electors” in the city, measured at the last general election.
Rachel Berger, a member of Concerned Citizens of South Portland, said as of Tuesday morning, June 11, the group had collected 1,269 signatures on the petition. Berger said the group will continue collecting signatures until Monday, June 17, when they plan to drop off the petition at the city clerk’s office. They hope to collect 1,400 signatures before Monday, Berger said.
There is currently no proposal on the table for Portland Pipe Line Corp. to transport tar sands oil, also called diluted bitumen or oil sands. Currently, the pipeline transports conventional crude oil from South Portland to Montreal. The citizens’ group is not attempting to prevent the company from continuing its current use.
However, Portland Pipe Line Corp. President Larry Wilson said at a workshop in March the company would consider a proposal to reverse the flow of the pipeline to transport tar sands if it makes sense for the company’s future.
Ted O’Meara, a spokesman for Portland Pipe Line Corp., said in a written statement issued Monday the company has protected the safety of its employees, the community and the environment in its time in South Portland.
“We will provide a more detailed response to address the misinformation, exaggerations and mistruths in the proposal in the near future,” O’Meara said in the statement.
Tar sands are an abundant resource in the Canadian province of Alberta. In recent years, oil companies have searched for ways to bring the oil extracted from that region to American ports for international transport. Some studies, including a U.S. State Department report, have concluded the substance is no more dangerous to transport than conventional crude oil.
But conflicting opinions, including that of the Environmental Protection Agency, say the chemicals needed to dilute oil sands make the pipelines that transport the substance unsafe. Additionally, they say the substance is extremely difficult to clean up once it spills into a water source because the heavy, viscous substance sinks below the surface.
Roberta Zuckerman, a member of Concerned Citizens of South Portland, said Thursday two recent spills “devastated” communities in Michigan and Arkansas, forcing some residents out of their homes and hurting local businesses.
Carol Masterson, a mother of two in South Portland, said she likely would not stay in the city long enough to see a similar situation develop close to home.
“If the city of South Portland were to allow tar sands to be transported through our community, there is a great likelihood that we would have to move. As a mother, I cannot risk the threat of a toxic spill either in our area or near our drinking water source,” Masterson said.
Crude oil in the Portland-Montreal Pipeline is offloaded in Casco Bay near Bug Light Park, and travels through the Sebago Lakes region before moving into Vermont and into Canada.
The proposed Waterfront Protection Ordinance would add a section to the city’s zoning ordinance that would prevent the construction of infrastructure needed to transport tar sands to South Portland’s Shipyard District, which includes Bug Light Park.
While other communities along the Portland-Montreal Pipeline’s route have publicly expressed opposition to the transport of tar sands oil, Zuckerman said South Portland is at the center of the conversation because the city has a say in the facilities built on the pier.
“There’s a lot resting on what South Portland does at this point in time,” Zuckerman said.
Dave Owen, an environmental law professor at the University of Maine, spoke Thursday to say the smokestacks themselves on the pier near Bug Light are reason enough to oppose tar sandsoil sands transport.
“Even if nothing ever spills – and that is no guarantee – the towers will serve as a stark visual reminder that South Portland is ready to serve as the east coast’s tar sands port.”
O’Meara said in his written statement Portland Pipe Line Corp. is not currently proposing to construct new facilities, “but should we desire to develop our facilities further we have every confidence that the city of South Portland and other agencies would treat us fairly and consistently as they have in the past.”
South Portland Mayor Tom Blake said the city will take a neutral stand on the issue, but individual city councilors will be free to state their opinions as individuals. Blake planned to sign the petition as a citizen before it was delivered to the city clerk’s office.
Blake also said he “fully expects” legal ramifications from the Portland Pipe Line Corp. should South Portland residents choose to enact the Waterfront Protection Ordinance this fall, and although those legal battles may be time-consuming and expensive, the city is prepared for that possibility.
“We will defend what the citizens want,” Blake said.