SOUTH PORTLAND – The city of South Portland will soon vote on a controversial environmental ordinance so broadly written as to cause the shutdown of critical infrastructure in one of New England’s largest ports.
Supporters of the Waterfront Protection Ordinance (WPO) submitted petition signatures to the city in June, and, following the city council’s 5-1 vote against implementing the ordinance, council members voted unanimously to send the measure to voters this November.
While some environmental activists claim the WPO is designed to protect the city’s idyllic Bug Light park from polluting corporations, others have stated their intentions plainly: a fossil fuel free Maine. Opponents say the measure, if passed, would undermine the working waterfront and send the cost of gas, home heating oil, and property taxes skyrocketing.
Jamie Py, president of the Maine Energy Marketers Association (MEMA), said the problem with the WPO stems from sections 3 and 4, which will severely restrict economic activity in the region.
Section 3 of the ordinance would prevent products that arrive on ships from being blended with products that arrive by rail or truck, said Py. This would effectively block petroleum-related activity at South Portland facilities where additives are combined with petroleum to produce home heating fuel, diesel and gasoline.
Section 4, said Py, is worse.
The language of section 4 would effectively prevent companies operating on the South Portland coast from conducting maintenance, repairs and upgrades to existing facilities, even if the changes are needed to comply with state and federal regulations. The effect would be the eventual shutdown of nearly all industry in the area.
“It’s like telling [New England Patriots owner] Bob Kraft that the Pats can still play football, but they can never change their personnel,” he said.
Whether the WPO becomes law or not, Mainers will still need gas for their cars and oil to heat their homes. Adopting the WPO, said Py, would simply mean higher prices, as petroleum products would need to be trucked up from Boston.
“This is critical infrastructure for all of us,” said Py. “Until they build enough 450 foot tall wind towers to power their electric cars, we need this.”
Robert Sellon, a member of Protect South Portland, the group that formulated the WPO and is now advancing it, said Py’s claims about what the ordinance would do are “absolutely not true.”
Sellon said companies already operating have nothing to worry about. “This ordinance protects all current activities,” he said. Sellon said the goal of the WPO was mainly to prevent new tanks from being constructed on the flood plains.
Asked whether the disagreement between each side of the debate over the language of the WPO means it should be modified, Sellon said no changes are needed in order to assuage industrial and commercial concerns.
Activists with 350-Maine, one of the environmental groups supporting the WPO, say their concern is with tar sands oil – a type of fossil fuel they consider an “extreme energy” choice.
“We have concerns about fossil fuels in general because of the climate changes issues,” said Bob Klotz, tar sands coordinator for 350 Maine. According to Klotz, the ordinance was intended to to prevent tar sands trafficking in Maine. The fact that the WPO does not mention tar sands once, said Klotz, is what you get when you have 10 lawyers in a room debating legal language.
Asked about the economic impact of the WPO, Klotz downplayed the benefit for Maine of shipping tar sands and said he would like to see South Portland’s energy companies focus less on “extreme energy” and more on “progressive” and “green” energy sources.
The uncertainty caused by the pending vote has already affected workers in Southern Maine.
Buckeye Partners L.P., a publicly-traded limited partnership that has petroleum and natural gas pipeline facilities in South Portland and Bangor, was planning to upgrade its southern operations to accommodate the Portland International Jetport’s demand for jet fuel. However, due to the uncertainty caused by the pending resolution, the company has put its plans on hold, meaning less work for Maine’s construction contractors.
Buckeye sent an Aug. 7 letter to members of the South Portland planning board expressing its concern over the WPO, stating that the proposed code change, if signed into law, would have many unfortunate consequences.
“We are very concerned that the WPO, if enacted and legal, would put at risk the working waterfront,” wrote Dan Ownby, director of business development at Buckeye. Ownby said that WPO would prevent Buckeye from conducting common sense repairs and additions. He pointed to their recent addition of a $100,000 security system and a $1,000,000 capital upgrade to petroleum product piping – both of which would be illegal if the WPO were adopted.
In addition, wrote Ownby, “The second phase of the project is on hold directly as a result of our concern the WPO, if enacted, would retroactively prohibit the second phase because this work could be interpreted as an enlargement of expansion of our facility. Placing the second phase on hold negatively affects us, the many contractors and their workers who would have performed the second phase later this year, and the City tax base.”
Linda Boudreau, who served 18 years on the South Portland City Council and three terms as mayor, wrote an Aug. 21 column for KeepMECurrent.com warning against the ordinance. According to Boudreau, the environmentalists behind the WPO used deceptive tactics to scare residents into signing their petitions:
“The Waterfront Protection Ordinance was placed on the ballot by citizen initiative. Proponents of the WPO secured signatures in large part by claiming that it was needed to protect Bug Light from “smokestacks.” In fact, a script that proponents used to secure signatures says:
“‘As you may have heard, ExxonMobil wants to build two 70-foot smokestacks on the pier next to Bug Light in order to export toxic tar sands oil out of Casco Bay. This project is a big threat to our drinking water and Casco Bay. We can stop the smokestacks. If enough people sign the petition to put our Waterfront Protection Ordinance on the November ballot.’
“Well, who wouldn’t want to sign the WPO petition after hearing that? Except, this selective explanation of the WPO, specifically designed to scare you into signing, doesn’t tell anywhere close to the real story. First, ExxonMobil doesn’t own or operate any terminals or pipeline facilities in South Portland and it isn’t seeking to do anything here. Second, there is no pending or proposed project by anyone to either develop ‘smokestacks’ at Bug Light or export tar sands”
Boudreau also warns against the consequences for South Portland’s economy and local government should the WPO be implemented:
“Perhaps most importantly, the petitioners would have you believe that this is a very narrowly tailored ordinance. It is not. It’s time for some hard truth – if passed, the overbroad WPO would devastate our working waterfront and eventually end the petroleum industry that has been an integral part of our community and culture for nearly 100 years…
“If the WPO passes, the results will be immediate and dramatic. Testimony before the Planning Board made clear that businesses will close, jobs will be lost and working families in our community will be harmed. The Waterfront Protection Ordinance will cost South Portland hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax revenue each year. This revenue supports our police, our firefighters, our teachers and schools, our roads and bridges.”
With both sides making incongruous statements about the potential impact of the WPO, it’s clear that South Portland’s debate over the future of its coastal area is far from over. Energy producers and environmentalists will surely campaign hard over the coming months to convince voters that their assessment is the truth.