SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — City councilors suggested no significant alterations Wednesday to proposed ordinance changes that would keep unrefined tar sands oil out of the city.
A special, three-member draft ordinance committee recently drafted the changes, which would prohibit “the bulk loading of crude oil” in South Portland.
The changes were reviewed Wednesday in a workshop, and will return to the City Council for a formal first reading on July 7.
More than 200 supporters, wearing blue T-shirts in a show of solidarity for the so-called “Clear Skies Ordinance,” attended the workshop at Mahoney Middle School. Throughout the evening, the crowd cheered and gave standing ovations for the committee’s efforts.
Scarborough resident Joan Laurie, whose birthday coincided with the workshop, said she was glad to spend the evening at what she felt would surely be a “very important historical event.”
“South Portland has a very special opportunity to lead other communities in Maine and in the country,” she told the committee and City Council.
City councilors formed the committee in January to devise a new approach to preventing tar sands importation, after a citizen-initiated ordinance amendment was narrowly defeated in a referendum last November. The amendment would have prevented Portland Pipe Line Corp. from building infrastructure needed to import Canadian tar sands oil and load the product on ocean-going tankers in South Portland.
Opponents of allowing tar sands oil into the city fear the environmental consequences of storing and transporting the unrefined oil, particularly because of risks of air pollution and the possibility of a leak in the Montreal-Portland pipeline.
Portland Pipe Line had an air emissions license to reverse the pipeline flow, but relinquished the permit shortly before the November vote. Representatives have said there are no concrete plans to reverse the flow, but the company remains open to the opportunity.
The city in December enacted a moratorium “on development proposals involving the loading of oil sands/tar sands products onto marine tank vessels,” which will be lifted after the draft ordinance committee finishes its work.
In its recommendations, the committee urges the council to immediately ban “the bulk loading of crude oil onto marine vessels” in specific city zones and the construction of any buildings or equipment associated with that use.
Committee members Michael Conathan, a former staffer for former U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, David Critchfield, founder of an environmental liability acquisition company, Portland attorney Russell Pierce, and facilitator Jeff Edelstein, repeatedly said the changes would not impact existing commercial operations on the waterfront, including the bulk loading of refined oil products and current crude oil handling.
The committee also outlined areas for possible future action and study, including zoning changes for the Hill Street tank farm, financial assurance for oil facilities and a city air-quality monitoring system.
Of the nearly 30 people who addressed the council and committee, only two opposed the ordinance changes. No representatives from Portland Pipe Line, the oil industry or local opposition group the Working Waterfront Coalition spoke. But the coalition expressed its concern about a ban “beyond limiting oil sands” in a news release issued prior to the workshop.
“There is no justification for such a prohibition, especially when this product has been safely transported, transloaded and stored on the waterfront for decades,” Burt Russell, vice president of operations at Sprague Energy, said in the prepared statement.
In a statement earlier Wednesday, Jim Merrill, spokesman for Portland Pipe Line, reiterated that the company has not taken a formal stance on the proposed ordinance changes, but “is closely monitoring the proceedings of the draft ordinance committee and city in this matter.”
The council will consider the changes July 7 after the committee tweaks the ordinance language with the help of city legal counsel Sally Daggett.
The proposed amendments will go to the planning board on July 15 for a public hearing and recommendation.
Final council action is scheduled for July 21.