Nurse Maura McDonald pushes for a local signature drive aimed at keeping tar sands oil from flowing through Maine.
Growing concerns over whether Exxon Mobile will reverse the flow of of a Portland to Montreal pipeline to allow Canadian tar sands oil into Maine have been swirling for months. There have been demonstrations, public meetings, and community votes denouncing the idea. Now, there's a new tactic, says Rob Sellin of Concerned Citizens of South Portland: a citizens' initiative.
"The Waterfront Protection Initiative will prevent the oil industry from building new smokestacks on the pier next to Bug Light Park, and other oil infrastructure in South Portland to export tar sands oil," he said.
This is the power of the local zoning ordinance: If you can't build it, they won't come. Blocking needed infrastructure is what gives the city leverage, says Roberta Zuckerman of Concerned Citizens.
"That really is where the possibility of having an impact lies," she says. "So it really - there's a lot resting on what South Portland does at this point in time."
Just last year, the city approved a plan to transition the shipyard area where the smokestacks would be located into a mixed-use zone that protects marine, recreational, and residential uses. South Portland environmental law professor Dave Owens says allowing tar sands is counter to the city's efforts to become an environmental leader.
"To become the East Coast's tar sands port, perhaps the continent's tar sands port, would be a huge step backward," Owens said, "a move toward the dirtiest forms of industrial development."
Tar sands oil is very thick and requires extra chemicals so it can flow through pipelines. If it leaks onto land or waterways, it sinks and is extremely difficult to remove. A 2010 tar sands spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River is still being cleaned up. South Portland nurse Maura McDonald says there are human health concerns as well, from exposure to the oil and the smokestacks.
"The red flags associated with tar sands oil, and the changes that South Portland would be required to accept to accommodate its presence here, far outnumber the green flags," she said.
The Portland-Montreal Pipe Line Corporation, which is based in South Portland, released a statement saying it's unfortunate that the company is being attacked after years of successfully protecting the environment and community. It says there are no current plans to develop their facilities in South Portland.
Still, Rob Sellin of Concerned Citizens of South Portland says the community needs to be proactive. The group has less than two weeks to gather the required signatures for the initiative. - they must collect 950 signatures by June 19.
Photos: Patty Wight