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South Portland Tar Sands Fight Intensifies
10/08/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

With less than a month before South Portland voters decide the fate of a zoning ordinance that could have implications for much of southern Maine, the campaigns on both sides of the issue are ramping up. Today the group "Protect South Portland" brought out the mayor and a local attorney to debunk what they say are "big oil's attempts to mislead voters." Meanwhile, a South Portland Planning Board member formally announced his opposition to the Waterfront Protection Ordinance. As Susan Sharon reports, both sides are using different strategies to try to garner local support.

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Supporters of the Waterfront Protection Ordinance bill themselves as the underdog in a David-versus-Goliath struggle to protect South Portland from the possible threat of so-called "tar sands oil," a heavy type of crude that must be diluted with chemicals to be transported by pipeline.

And they've come up with a zoning measure that they believe will prevent the future construction of a tar sands export facility, something they fear could turn Casco Bay and the city's air into a toxic soup.

"We're all volunteer. We're here because we care. We don't have - we're not getting paid. We don't have a vested interest in this for money," says canvass coordinator Chrystal Goodrich (right).

On a recent Saturday morning, Goodrich is giving final instructions to a group of volunteers who have signed up to go door-to-door with the Protect South Portland campaign.

"And the other side has paid canvassers - sorry, we don't have oil money to pay you with - paid pollsters, paid ads and all those things," Goodrich says. "And if you notice, you don't see ads around for us because we're going door-to-door."

tar sands 1Marla Pastrana: "I'm Marla with Protect South Portland. We're distributing information."

Unidentified woman: "Is this for the Waterfront?.. Yeah, you don't even need to give me that. We're all set. We're gonna vote for that one."

Marla Pastrana: "Excellent! Thank you so much."

Marla Pastrana (left, speaking with Glenn Perry) has lived in South Portland for 11 years. She says she's never worked on a campaign before. But after some friends told her about the Portland Pipe Line Corp's stated interest in using its existing pipeline to bring tar sands from western Canada to the shores of Casco Bay, Pastrana signed up as a volunteer.

"Our attorney has made it very clear that we have no intention of shutting any of the businesses down in the waterfront," Pastrana says. "We need them. We want them to expand. We want them to improve. They're essential in our community."

While supporters say the ordinance does nothing to change current activities on the city's working waterfront, business owners who make their living at a half-dozen oil terminals in the city, providing heating oil to southern Maine homes, jet fuel to the airport and servicing ships or off-loading barges that call on Portland Harbor, don't see it that way.

Oil tanks from Sprague Energy terminal. Photo: Susan Sharon 10082013Their attorneys say one interpretation of the ordinance prohibits new construction, including certain improvements on their piers. And they're fighting back with a multi-media campaign that recently included a waterfront bus tour for members of the public.

"That's our ship berth over there where we get about 100 ships and barges a year that bring fuel oil and jet fuel and diesel fuel into our facility," says Tim Winters of Sprague Energy. Winters is a member of the Working Waterfront Coalition that opposes the Waterfront Protection Ordinance.

Winters says he recently met with the Portland Harbor Commission and withdrew a permit application for a marine construction project that has been in the works for awhile. "Our interpretation of the WPO is that this would be viewed as an expansion of our facility, so we have currently stopped, I believe it's phase three or four, of that operation."

According to the coalition, several similar projects have been stopped because of worries that the WPO is retroactive to May 1st. In addition, a recent economic analysis, paid for by the Energy Marketers' Association, found that if the South Portland petroleum businesses are disrupted because of zoning ordinance restrictions, more than 5,000 jobs could be lost over the next decade and the cost of gasoline could be driven up.

The Protect South Portland campaign office.  Photo: Susan Sharon 10082013.Supporters say the analysis was based on a flawed premise. South Portland historian Kathy Diphilippo, a volunteer wtih the Working Waterfront Coalition, says she thinks proponents have distorted some facts.

"It seems that everyone seems to be in a fervor because they're all worried, 'Oh, we have to pass this right now because of this fear that tar sands are coming to South Portland,'" Diphilippo says. "But, frankly, there's nothing to support that claim. There's just nothing. That's just a fact."

Ordinance supporters point to a 2008 proposal from the Pipe Line Corporation that never moved forward as evidence that a tar sands export project could be in the works.

But attorneys and South Portland city officials are divided on the issue. Neither the code enforcement officer nor the city attorney has explained how the ordinance would be interpreted or enforced. And Mary Jane Perry says the lack of information makes it difficult for residents like her to sort out the facts.

"We have two different stories here going on," Perry says, "and that would be a good thing if they could have that information available in a clear way."

Several calls to the code enforcement office and to the city attorney for comment for this story were not returned.

Photos: Susan Sharon


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