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South Portland Tar Sands Opponents Vow to Continue Fight
11/06/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

South Portland voters Tuesday narrowly defeated an ordinance to block tar sands oil from coming to the city. But those against having the thick oil flow through Maine's pipelines are still declaring victory. That's because the city council is holding a workshop tonight to decide whether to enact a six-month moratorium to block tar sands. As Patty Wight reports, the measure would buy time for the council to draft and vote on a permanent measure.

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Tar sands opponents Tuesday lost their fight to enact a local ordinance, but they are vowing to continue the fight.

The past two months have been sleepless ones for Burt Russell. He's VP of operations at Sprague energy company. And he says the source of his insomnia was the proposed Waterfront Protection Ordinance - which, he says, was really an anti-business development ordinance.

"It limited the ability of any facility on the South Portland waterfront that carries petroleum to really make business upgrades, enhancements, even maintenance," Russell says.

Russell is not alone in this view. Business and labor groups - even members of the South Portland City Council and Planning Board - opposed the ordinance because its reach extended beyond just blocking thick tar sands oil, which is more difficult to clean up than conventional oil in the event of a spill.

Planning board member Rob Schreiber says he's perplexed that those who favored the ordinance forced a vote on the issue, creating an adversarial relationship, instead of working on the issue publicly through the City Council and Planning Board.

"Being on this side of the camp, I've talked to people about greenhouse gases and fossil fuels, and when everything's calmed down, people are open to a lot more conversation than what others may think," Schreiber says. "So I actually feel really good that something really excellent could come out of all of this."

That's exactly what supporters of the ordinance - members of the group Protect South Portland - believe. Natalie West, one of the lawyers who drafted the ordinance, declared victory on Wednesday, despite the fact the measure failed at the ballot box by about 200 votes.

"I think the great thing that Protect South Portland has been able to do is really raise the consciousness in the community and on the council of the risks of tar sands to our community."

The group has a strong ally in South Portland mayor Tom Blake, who says the City Council is holding a special workshop at 6:00 o'clock Wednesday to vote on a six-month moratorium on tar sands.

Blake told supporters Tuesday night that he believes the City Council will favor a new measure that specifically addresses the petroleum industry. "I am 100 percent convinced that tar sands in never coming to this community," he said.

The draft moratorium declares that no company on the South Portland waterfront can export petroleum products. That effectively blocks a reversal in the Portland Pipe Line that would allow tar sands oil from Canada to flow to South Portland, the final U.S. destination before export.

The president and CEO of Portland Pipe Line Corporation, Larry Wilson, says the company has no imminent plans to bring tar sands to Maine. But he says he can't promise the company will never pursue it in the future.

"Well, my friend from Sprague, Burt Russell, has a wonderful saying about that. 'It's like asking Radio Shack to commit to only sell a Commodore 64,'" Wilson says. "How would their business be today? That tactic of trying to get any company, any corporation, to say, 'I'm never going to do anything different in the future.' I don't understand who that responsible company or corporation would be that would make that sort of claim.""

Wilson says the defeat of the ordinance marks an opportunity for a genuine conversation between all interested parties. If the moratorium passes, they will have six months for that conversation to result in a mutually supported plan.

Photos:  Caroline Losneck


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