Tar sands: Solution or a threat?
By Dawn De Busk
RAYMOND — On the eve of July 25, 2010, a pipeline rupture allowed tar sands oil to begin to leak into a tributary to the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Seventeen hours passed before the company responsible responded.
Two years later, after that million-gallon tar sands oil spill, some sections of the Kalamazoo River remain off limits to swimming and fishing. In addition, around 130 homes have been rendered inhabitable because of the pollution associated with the tar sands oil.
This is a scenario that area residents and representatives of the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) fear could happen in the Lakes Region — if a Canadian-based company is permitted to pump tar sands oil along the 60-year-old pipeline that runs between Montreal and Portland.
On Monday — the anniversary week of Michigan’s misfortune — more than 30 citizens dressed in black formed a human oil spill by lying on the golden sands of Raymond Public Beach. Earlier in the evening, the group held homemade signs in front of the Raymond Boat Launch, where a curious, suntanned local resident sincerely wished them good luck.
Two rally participants, Kevin and Lindsey Sheehan, who live in the Town of Sebago on the west side of Big Sebago Lake, said if tar sands oil were to be pumped along the pipeline that was constructed around World War II, a spill would spell out catastrophe for the region.
“We draw our drinking water from the lake. So, this is close to our hearts,” said Kevin, who sported a T-shirt saying: “There is no Planet B.”
“See around that point. Sheehan Island was named after my folks. I used to spend my summers there. We had kerosene lamps, and no electricity,” Kevin recalled fondly.
“That would be impacted first. If an oil spill happened here, it would migrate that way before it impacted our drinking water,” he said, adding that Portland Water District customers also rely on a clean source of H2O from the lake.
Lindsey said she has been following the tar sands oil issue on the Internet for the past two years, and it concerns her. In fact, she has signed every anti-tar sands petition that has come her way.
“I feel like, maybe, today we are making some small progress,” she said.
According to NRCM’s Clean Energy Director Dylan Veorhees, the company Enbridge Inc., which owns the pipeline in Michigan, is putting in place a plan to reverse the flow of at least one of two pipelines already buried underground.
Instead of running crude oil north from the port of Portland to Canadian refineries, Veorhees said the tar sands would come from the Boreal forest in Canada, and travel south via pipeline before arriving in Portland for distribution to eager markets.
However, Ted O’Meara, a spokesperson for company said on Tuesday that such a plan is not in the cards.
“There is no active project to reverse the flow and bring the tar-sands oil to Portland,” O’Meara said.
According to Veohees, the potential route of the pipeline — if it followed the existing infrastructure from Canada — would be: Parallel to the Androscoggin River, then 50 miles from Bethel to Dixfield, then it would turn south through Albany, and the pipeline would follow the Crooked River, which it would cross six times. Part of the pipeline journey would include the shores of Big Sebago Lake and Panther Pond in Raymond before its conclusion at the port in Portland.
According to Veorhees, who addressed approximately 200 people at the Crooked Creek Community Center on July 19, Enbridge is getting its ducks in line to export tar sands oil.
“I am here to tell you about an emerging project that would put this region at risk,” he told the crowd earlier this month.
O’Meara said NRCM’s claim is not true.
“There is no current project to do that,” he said.
“First of all, there is a pipeline that is active and is being used. It is being used to ship crude oil, to bring it into the pipeline,” O’Meara said.
“There is a terminal in South Portland,” he said, adding that the crude oil is brought to the terminal from around the world, from places such as the Mideast and South America. Then, the crude oil is “pumped to Canada, where it is refined.”
O’Meara later sent a message from his phone to confirm that one of the two pipelines is in operation, and the 18-inch-diameter pipeline is sitting idle.
Enbridge, the Canadian company, was not contacted for this article.
Not only does NRCM doubt that there is no plan on the table, but also the conservation group does not like the company’s track record.
“The Montreal to Portland companies have said there is no plan to activate the pipeline at this time, but we don’t believe it because the pieces are all there,” Veorhees said last Thursday.
If that were not a problem, the fact that tar sands oil is a different beast would pose one.
“This tar sands has different properties than conventional crude oil. It is denser than water and it sinks to the bottom,” he said. “The technology to clean up tar sands does not exist.”
Dredging occurred in the Kalamazoo River to remove the earth that was tainted with tar sands, Veorhees said.
Tar sands “is an oily mixture of sand and rock buried in soils of Canada,” he said.
Tar sands oil “is mixed with toxic chemicals to thin the oil so it flows.
When a spill occurs, benzene is released into the air,” he said.
One teen, who attended Monday’s rally with her parents and brother, said all of this could be avoided if America pursued alternative sources of energy.
She hoped the rally in which she had participated would raise awareness about tar sands oil.
“There are other alternatives that wouldn’t hurt the earth as much — such as hybrid cars,” said Sarah Rose Shuer, 14.
“There are so many smart people around the world. If they put their heads together, they could come up with something great,” Shuer said.
NRCM staged the Monday evening protest at Big Sebago Lake. Other rallies were held at Bug Light Lighthouse in South Portland on Tuesday and at both Bolster Mills Bridge in Harrison and the Davis Park picnic area in Bethel on Wednesday.