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South Portland Tar Sands Hearing Draws Big Crowd
03/12/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

There's no formal proposal to bring tar sands oil from Canada to Maine - yet. But that didn't stop more than 350 people from turning out in a South Portland gymnasium last night to learn more about tar sands, and to register their concerns about it. South Portland is the headquarters for the Portland Montreal Pipe Line Company, and as Susan Sharon reports, the city is trying to be pro-active on the issue.

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South Portland Tar Sands Hearing Draws Big Crowd Listen

It's a presentation Dylan Voorhees of the Natural Resources Council of Maine has taken on the road many times over the past year. Armed with slides and maps, Voorhees tells the audience about a tar sands oil catastrophe in Michigan's Kalamazoo River in 2010 - nearly a million gallons spilled and nearly a billion dollars spent cleaning it up.

It's an example, Voorhees says, of how great a threat tar sands poses to the environment - and especially to greater Portland's water supply. The 62-year-old Portland-Montreal Pipeline passes through the Sebago Lake watershed. And while it doesn't yet carry tar sands oil, the company has recently signaled an interest in that use.

Voorhees ends his talk by suggesting the need for environmental review of any future project. With that, the crowd stands up, and applauds.

"I think that people were largely applauding because they were trying to signal to the city council that they agree with the concerns and share the concerns that we have," he says. Reached by telephone after the meeting, Voorhees says he's been continually impressed at how many people keep showing up at tar sands events.

The city of South Portland also invited officials from the pipeline company to give a presentation, and company officials pulled out the stops. They brought the Canadian consul general to New England, who highlighted Maine and Canada's strong trade relations. They also brought the executive director of the New England Petroleum Institute, John Quinn, to debunk claims that heavier tar sands oil is more corrosive and riskier for spills.

"I'm here because of the efforts of the Natural Resources Council and others to demonize and politicize Canadian oil sands and the Portland Pipeline," Quinn said.

Quinn quoted from a recent draft Environmental Impact Statement by the U.S. State Department on the Keystone XL Pipeline that would bring Canadian tar sands to the Midwest. "The risks associated with shipping Canadian oil sands crudes are the same as with shipping conventional crude oils, and any spills are expected to be rare and small," he said.

Pipeline company officials point out that they have an excellent safety record. They regularly clean and monitor the 236-mile long pipeline to prevent internal and external corrosion using advanced equipment. And they say crude oil from Canada fits in with the broad range of crude oils that they currently handle.

But most of the 68 people who testified at the informational meeting expressed skepticism about such claims. Jennie Pirkl of South Portland wants to know more about the process that would be used to get heavy tar sands to flow through the pipeline.

"And I also have a question for the Portland Pipeline. I'm hoping that they can provide both the community and the city council with a list of all of the chemicals that may be used to dilute tar sands," Pirkl said, sparking applause.

Pirkl also wants a list of any chemicals that might have to be released through tall stacks the company would have to install in South Portland to vent associated tar sands vapors.

But about a dozen people said they just want an environmental review. And South Portland Mayor Tom Blake says that may be something the council could request. "We may, at our next workshop, be talking about - do we want to reach out to our federal representatives and ask them for an impact study?" he says.

Blake says South Portland is in a unique position because it's the only port city on the East Coast connected to the Canadian pipeline system that could export tar sands oil to foreign markets. Blake worries that the issue could make the city ground zero in the debate over the nation's future energy policy - and possibly divide his community along the way.


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