Tar sands transport not worth risk, say opponents

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

Voters in four western Maine towns — Bridgton, Harrison, Otisfield and Bethel — will decide next week whether to formally oppose any future plans by the Portland Pipeline Company to transport tar sands oil from Canada to Portland.

Leading up to the vote, oil industry officials have mounted an all-out campaign to convince voters that tar sands oil, or diluted bitumen, poses no greater environmental risk than conventional crude oil — and that Portland Pipeline’s impressive safety record over the past 50 years has earned them the right to stay competitive in today’s energy marketplace. The campaign has emerged following passage of anti-tar sands resolutions at earlier town meetings in Waterford, Casco and Raymond.

Both Bridgton and Harrison will vote by referendum on Tuesday, June 11. Bridgton’s resolution has already been written; in Harrison, voters will give their selectmen authority to “issue a resolution stating their concerns and opposition to any form of processed tar sands being piped through the Town of Harrison.”

Bethel’s June 12 Town Meeting will consider overturning the anti-tar sands resolution voters passed in February, with its petitioners arguing that the vote was unfair because pipeline officials weren’t allowed to speak. Also, they say, the resolution was passed at a special town meeting rather than the more widely-attended annual Town Meeting.

Statewide, the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee recently rejected imposing a moratorium on tar sands oil transport, reasoning in part that such a move could conflict with federal law. And nationally, a draft report on the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries has found that “oil sands are no different than conventional crude oil” in terms of safety risks.

However, a final ruling has yet to be issued.

Last week, Portland Pipeline officials gave a detailed Powerpoint presentation in Otisfield, with particular emphasis on the company’s rigorous pipeline maintenance and monitoring programs. But in Bridgton, it was supporters of the anti-tar sands resolution who held sway, sparring with the pipeline’s marketing consultant Dan Demeritt, the only person attending who spoke in favor of tar sands oil transport.

Risks outweigh benefits

Earl Morse of Waterford began the two-hour discussion by saying that the Portland Pipeline was constructed as a wartime emergency during World War II to deliver crude oil from Portland to Montreal, Canada. Unfortunately, the shortest route also takes the pipeline through some of the most environmentally-sensitive areas in Maine and Vermont, he said.

That’s certainly true in terms of the Crooked River, he said, a Class AA “pristine” river which has an abundance of “permanently flooded oxbows and backwaters” along as much as 80% of its 50-mile length.

“The Portland Pipeline has a pretty good safety record, I have to say,” said Morse. But there have been spills — around 1,000 barrels in 1960, near a Waterford pumping station, and another 1,000-gallon spill in 2003 in Harrison.

Because the molecules comprising tar sands oil are heavier than conventional crude, the residual effects of any pipeline leaks would be “devastating,” Morse said, because the oil would sink down into the leaf bed once the benzene or propane that it’s mixed with for transport has evaporated. The spill would naturally migrate into the oxbows and backwaters.

The only way to clean the spill is by stripping off all trees and other groundcover, then removing the soil and replacing it with clean soil, using chemical processes that require enormous amounts of energy, Morse said. “The traditional usage of that river valley will be damaged for generations, and there’s a good possibility the Atlantic salmon would never recover,” he said, referring to one of the river’s most prized resources.

Jon Chappell, one of the Bridgton residents who brought forward the Bridgton resolution, pointed out that the flow of oil had been reversed in both the case of a 2006 tar sands oil spill into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan and a much more recent tar sands oil spill on March 29, 2013 in Mayflower, Arkansas

If Portland Pipeline is granted a federal permit to transport tar sands oil — no applications are currently pending — then they will be reversing the flow in their pipeline as well. Chappell also said that only one more section remains to be built of the pipeline from the Alberta tar sands reserve to Montreal.

“The question is, where will it go from there?” said Chappell, noting the likelihood that Portland Pipeline will want to get into the tar sands oil market at that point. He also said that not all refineries in the U.S. are capable of processing tar sands oil for conventional use.

Demeritt said Portland Pipeline has done an “impressive” job maintaining the integrity of both of the 18-inch and 24-inch pipelines it owns. “Properly maintained, it can last indefinitely,” he said.

Demeritt said flyovers are done weekly along the pipeline’s entire length to check for any signs of trouble. He wasn’t sure, however, in answer to a resident’s question, how often the pipeline route is inspected on foot.

Morse said he and Harrison resident Bart Hague have walked along the route along Hague’s riverfront property, and are concerned to discover that the pipeline is not as deep in the ground in some places as it should be. Pipeline leaks happen most frequently at the joint welds, he said, and when the line is less than the four-foot depth necessary to avoid the frost line, it also is vulnerable to the jarring impact of recreational vehicles bouncing along the ground overhead.

Demeritt said, “The challenge for the pipeline company is the market changes,” and that it cannot afford to wait two or three years for an environmental impact study to be done before making a decision on tar sands oil transport.

Morse was asked whether he would still oppose the transport of tar sands oil through the Portland Pipeline if an environmental impact study were done. He said, “Only if absolutely every other alternative” route was studied and deemed unfeasible.

Not so for Sweden resident Wolfgang Duve, a retired engineer who, along with his wife, has taken an active interest in the issue.

“Monkeying with this tar sands oil is a no-brainer,” Duve said. The costs are too great, both in terms of money and the threat to the environment.


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