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Environment and Outdoors

South Portland Considers New Tar Sands Ordinance

Susan Sharon

The issue of tar sands oil, and the possibility of it one day being pumped from Canada into Maine for export is likely to be hotly debated at a meeting South Portland tonight. In a little over an hour's time, a special workshop will be held by the City Council to discuss a new draft ordinance that would prevent the bulk loading of crude oil onto ships for export.

This new plan is narrower in scope than the Waterfront Protection Ordinance rejected by South Portland voters in November, which would have prevented the expansion of all fuel-related development on the waterfront.

"It's narrow, it's straightforward and it gets the job done, it protects the city from the threat of tar sands," says Taryn Hallweaver.  Hallweaver is with Environment Maine, which has been helping the council committee put together the draft ordinance.

The pipeline that runs between South Portland and Montreal is currently used to transport imported crude inland.  Groups like Environment Maine, plus a number of local residents, are worried that the pipeline operator will reverse the flow and use it to bring so-called tar sands oil - which is thicker and often described as more toxic than regular crude - from Alberta, Canada, to South Portland for export.

Hallweaver says the latest proposal - dubbed the "Clear Skies Ordinance" - will make sure this doesn't happen. Exporting tar sands from South Portland, she adds, will create a significant new source of air pollution.

"And that's because tar sands oil is toxic to begin with, it's mixed with a whole host of toxic chemicals to dilute it for transport, and then those chemicals, like benzene, have to get burned off before it can loaded onto tanker ships," Hallweaver says. "So it's a major health concern for nearby residents."

"I live within a block of the pipeline itself in the midst of four big storage tanks, so I'm very aware of its presence in my life," says local resident Mary-Jane Ferrier.

Ferrier says even now, when these tanks are cleaned and vented, there are heavy petroleum smells in the neighborhood. "I'm aware that those would be more so - much more so - if these were tar sands in those tanks," she says. "And I don't want that to happen, and I don't want it to happen for everybody else, not just for myself."

To be clear, the Portland Pipeline Corporation, which operates the 236-mile pipeline, has always said it has no plans to reverse the oil flow and ship tar sands east to the Maine coast. But environmentalists are concerned by a couple of developments in recent months.

In March, the Canadian government approved the reversal of a 400-mile stretch of pipeline, enabling crude to be pumped eastwards to Quebec - something that opponents fear will pave the way for the arrival of tar sands in Maine.

The other development was the appearance of newspaper ads in Maine shortly after that, promoting tar sands from Canada, describing it as "safe reliable energy." The group behind the ads was called Maine Energy Citizens, which is supported by the American Petroleum Institute.

Portland Pipeline Corporation has not yet taken a position on the draft ordinance. Spokesman Jim Merrill declined to go on tape for this story. But in an emailed statement, he said the company was "closely monitoring the proceedings of the Draft Ordinance Committee and City in this matter, and will carefully review and evaluate impacts of the proposed ordinance on South Portland's energy industry employees, families, contractors, and the communities that rely on these companies every day."

Meanwhile, a group called the Working Waterfront Coalition - formed last year to oppose the Waterfront Protection Ordinance - appears to also oppose the new draft ordinance. The coalition did not respond to a request for comment, but in an email obtained by MPBN, sent by the group to a potential supporter, the coalition expressed concern that the measures would prevent the waterfront from evolving along with "rapidly expanding domestic energy production, resulting in an inevitable elimination of the jobs they support."

South Portland Mayor Jerry Jalbert opposed the Waterfront Protection Ordinance in November, but he says he supports the new draft proposition.

"In reading through the ordinance, at this point - unless I see something or hear something very dramatically different - I'm going to be supporting this as mayor and as a city councilor," Jalbert says.

Jalbert says the draft ordinance seems to have identified a way to keep tar sands out of Maine without threatening South Portland's marine economy.

Tonight's council workshop, which is open to the public, starts at 7:00 p.m. at Mahoney Middle School in South Portland.