South Portland to set aside cash in expectation of legal challenge to tar sands ban

Posted Aug. 14, 2014, at 12:20 p.m.

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — The ordinance that bars tar sands oil from the city may have only passed on July 21, but South Portland is already preparing for a legal challenge from the oil industry.

In the City Council’s workshop on Monday, Aug. 11, which coincided with the Clear Skies Ordinance’s first official day as law, councilors agreed to move forward with a special legal fund to defend against a lawsuit from Portland Pipe Line Corp.

City staff and councilors said Monday they have received almost daily right-to-know requests from Portland Pipe Line attorney Matt Manahan since July 31, seeking all materials “relating in any way to the waterfront protection ordinance and its progeny,” the Clear Skies Ordinance. They seek information from as far back as October 2013.

The Clear Skies Ordinance was the result of a yearlong initiative to prevent Portland Pipe Line from reversing its pipeline to Montreal for transport of Canadian tar sands to Portland for export.

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Opponents of tar sands feared the reversal would have negative implications for air quality, because of action required at the export terminal, and that the tar sands — the common term for diluted bitumen, a thick form of crude oil mixed with clay and sand — could increase the possibility of a leak in the pipeline.

The Clear Skies Ordinance is a collection of zoning amendments prohibiting “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.

Local oil officials overwhelmingly opposed the ordinance because they believe it limits their business expansion opportunities and could jeopardize waterfront jobs.

In a prepared statement on the Freedom of Access Act requests, Jim Merrill, another attorney and spokesman for Portland Pipe Line, said the company seeks public information on the Clear Skies Ordinance’s process and passage as they “evaluate several options concerning this job-killing ordinance.”

“Given the bias plainly apparent throughout this process, the public at-large and the businesses most adversely affected by the [Clear Skies Ordinance] deserve to have a complete understanding of what has transpired, so that they continue to have confidence in the objective and impartial operation of the city of South Portland,” Merrill said in a prepared statement.

Because the city would likely face a lengthy, locally divisive lawsuit, Mayor Jerry Jalbert and City Manager Jim Gailey said Monday they want to begin a special city legal fund reserved specifically for defending the Clear Skies Ordinance, preferably one funded in part by online donations.

If they can depend on donations from sympathetic residents, environmental groups and law firms, councilors agreed, the city could avoid using taxpayer dollars to defend the ordinance.

“We don’t want this falling on the taxpayers,” Councilor Linda Cohen said. “On any given day, 49 to 51 percent of taxpayers in the city may have opposing views on this ordinance.”

Councilor Tom Blake urged the council to reach out to Portland Pipe Line about how the city can help the business “continue to thrive in our community” and keep lines of communication open to avoid a lawsuit.

“I’m not convinced we’re getting sued. … I don’t believe we’ve done anything wrong,” Blake said.

In the coming weeks, Gailey said city staff will try to arrange a meeting with Portland Pipe Line and will establish a legal fund for donations.

The council also tentatively scheduled the special three-member Draft Ordinance Committee, which created the Clear Skies Ordinance, for a Sept. 22 workshop to discuss the additional three recommendations they drafted in addition to the Clear Skies Ordinance.

The proposals recommended for further action are rezoning of the Hill Street Tank Farm and the Pickett Street neighborhood center, financial assurance in case marine oil terminals close and consideration of a local air quality monitoring system.

 

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