So. Portland Residents Launch Citizens Initiative to Stop Tar Sands Project

South Portland, Maine—At a news conference this morning outside of South Portland City Hall, local residents announced a new campaign to qualify a citizen’s initiative for the November ballot to keep South Portland safe from tar sands oil. The Waterfront Protection Ordinance would change the city’s zoning ordinance to block ExxonMobil, the majority owner of the Portland-Montreal pipeline, from building two 70-foot smokestacks next to Bug Light and other oil infrastructure needed to export tar sands out of Casco Bay. ExxonMobil, the majority owner of the Portland-Montreal pipeline has proposed to build these smokestacks on the pier in order to export tar sands.

“We ask all citizens of South Portland to stand with us to protect our community. Please sign the petition to qualify this citizen’s initiative for the ballot and vote YES on the Waterfront Protection Ordinance in November,” said Rob Sellin, co-chair Concerned Citizens of South Portland, a group of residents who are opposed to tar sands coming through South Portland. “We will not let Big Oil drag us backwards. South Portland is taking a stand against tar sands.”

The campaign comes as the Portland Pipeline Corp. is “aggressively looking at every opportunity,” according to CEO Larry Wilson, to pump oil from Montreal to South Portland and as the Canadian National Energy Board considers an application from Canadian oil giant Enbridge that would complete the connection of pipelines able to carry tar sands from Alberta to Montreal.

“In recent years, South Portland has had a strong track record of trying to achieve economic growth in environmentally sensitive ways,” said Dave Owen, a South Portland resident, environmental law professor at Maine Law School, and father of two young children. “To become the East Coast’s tar sands port—perhaps the continent’s tar sands port—would be a huge step backward, a move toward the dirtiest forms of industrial development.  And that’s a step I hope the city and its citizens will do everything in their power to avoid by passing the Waterfront Protection Ordinance.”

South Portland’s Comprehensive Plan, approved in October 2012, was developed with broad input and support from residents across the city. The plan envisions transitioning the Shipyard area, where Exxon’s stacks would be built, to a mixed-use area that protects traditional marine uses while accommodating recreational, business, and residential uses.

The proposed towering smokestacks, the tallest in South Portland, would be built between Bug Light and Spring Point Ledge Lighthouses. The smokestacks would be a new source of local air pollution, and they would damage the beauty of the South Portland coastline, since they would be highly visible from Bug Light, Willard Beach, SMCC and elsewhere.

“From a health care perspective, this is a dangerous proposition by all accounts,” said Maura McDonald, a nurse practitioner from South Portland. “The smokestacks are needed to burn off dangerous pollutants, known as VOCs and air toxics, as the tar sands is loaded onto tankers for export. VOCs are smog-forming pollutants, and smog triggers asthma attacks and other respiratory and cardiovascular problems. I am very concerned that these stacks are so close to South Portland’s schools.”

Stopping the smokestacks would have the added benefit of keeping tar sands out of South Portland. In addition, the citizens expressed deep concern about potential tar sands spills in South Portland, Casco Bay, and Sebago Lake, the city’s drinking water supply. The 63-year-old Portland-Montreal pipeline crosses through the entire Sebago Lake watershed, including cutting directly through a cove of Sebago Lake. In the last three years alone, there have been two massive U.S. tar sands spills—one in Arkansas and the other in Michigan. They have proven nearly impossible to clean up because the heavy tar sands oil tends to sink in water. The 2010 spill in Michigan has permanently polluted more than 30 miles of the Kalamazoo River and is still being cleaned up, with costs expected to top $1 billion. The tar sands spill in Arkansas two months ago has left residents with ongoing health and water problems.

Maine sportsmen also point to impacts in Arkansas on wildlife and in the local environment—including that state’s most popular fishing spot, Lake Conway. Anglers in Maine have similar concerns about the Sebago Lake watershed and Casco Bay.

“Sebago Lake has for generations been one of Maine’s best family destinations. I know, because I have spent many, many days fishing with my family at Sebago Lake—one of the most pristine lakes in the whole country,” said Art Dysinger, South Portland resident and member of the Sebago Lake Anglers Association. “A tar sands spill in Sebago Lake is almost unthinkable. This project is not worth the risk it poses to our fisheries and our drinking water. I know Sebago Lake could never go back to what it is today.”

“We care deeply about the health and well-being of our community,” says Carol Masterson, mother of two from South Portland. “These impacts really scare me. For the sake of my children and all the other children in our community, we need to keep the water that they drink and the air that they breathe safe from toxic tar sands oil. That is why we are working to pass this citizen’s initiative."

The citizens need to submit 950 qualified signatures to put the Waterfront Protection Ordinance on the November ballot.