Waterford rallies tar sands resolution

By Dawn De Busk

Staff Writer

RAYMOND — From Bethel to Portland, residents of the towns through which three oil pipelines run have been educating themselves about tar sands oil.

Education has been one of the responses to a proposed plan called Trailbreaker, in which the Portland Pipe Line Corporation (PPLC) would use existing pipelines to transport a petroleum substance referred to as tar sands oil, or diluted bitumen (dilbit).

Waterford resident Paula Easton believes citizens can request an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) of the Crooked River Valley watershed. The EIS would become necessary if the pipeline company is required to re-apply for a presidential permit for this project.

“What is important is that people are empowered in this process,” Easton said, adding residents can take a proactive approach by writing to legislators on the state and federal level and pushing for a full environmental impact study.

“People have the ability to protect why they are here. We don’t live here because we have great jobs, or make $1,000,000. It’s a way of life,” Easton said.

She said that if an oil spill were to occur, it would not only impact the environment that includes the wetlands leading to Big Sebago Lake, but also would have ramifications on the drinking water, public safety, and a multi-million dollar tourism industry.

“The risks are unacceptable. A tar sands oil spill would be irreversible,” Easton said.

Easton stressed that residents are not against the pipeline or its current use for conventional crude oil. Instead, locals are concerned about the transportation of tar sands — especially after failed cleanup efforts on the Kalamazoo River following a million-gallon spill in 2010.

Resolutions, education as a solution

This Saturday, Easton’s community will be considering the passage of a resolution to stand against tar sands. The resolution will be one of the warrant articles at the Waterford Town Meeting, which begins at 9 a.m.

In mid-January, Casco became the first town to pass a tar sands resolution. A few weeks later, the Town of Bethel also embraced such a resolution during its Special Town Meeting.

On Wednesday, Feb. 20, a group of Waterford residents attended an informative presentation held by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Also in attendance were town managers from Raymond, Casco and Windham as well as fire chiefs and local elected officials. That meeting took place at the Raymond Public Safety Building.

NRDC Attorney Anthony Swift visited officials in the towns of Raymond and Portland, explaining the chemical makeup of tar sands versus conventional crude. He also cited studies that looked at the external wear-and-tear of pipelines, which carry bitumen rather than conventional crude oil.

“The people in attendance were in information-gathering mode,” Swift said during a phone interview on Tuesday.

“The response was positive. We have learned that with tar sands pipelines, there are significant gaps in safety and oversight,” he said.

“We don’t want to see mistakes like what happened in Kalamazoo repeated in Maine,” Swift said.

Aging infrastructure

In response to an audience member’s question about the age and safety of the Maine-based pipelines, Swift said, “Pipeline failures are directly co-related to pipeline age.”

The first pipeline, which runs between Bethel in the western mountains to the Port of Portland, was constructed in 1941, with the most recent pipeline built in 1965.

“The coatings used 30 to 50 years ago were inferior to the ones used today. Those past technologies are more spill-prone.

Even the steel used in the 60s wasn’t as good as what is used today,” Swift said.

Also, the infrastructure was built prior to the Clean Water Act, which was passed in 1972.

“So, the pipelines’ routing predates the laws that protect water resources,” he said.

“It is hard to imagine in today’s world with those protections (laws) in place that oil pipelines would be constructed where the pipeline corridor is now,” Swift said.

Tar sands chemistry broken down

According to Swift, the PPLC already has a presidential permit to transport traditional crude oil. However, the product, which is mined from the boreal forest in Canada, is vastly different, he said. Compared to conventional crude, diluted bitumen is much heavier.

The method used to measure thickness or viscosity is called centistokes, according to Swift. Water is 1; North American benchmark crude from west Texas weighs in at 5; and diluted bitumen, ranges between 250 and 300 centistokes, he said.

“It is important for people to know it is much thicker. It is the thickness of this crude as it moves down the pipeline that heats up the diluted bitumen,” Swift said.

The friction of the heavy substance produces heat and contributes to pipeline ruptures, he said. “All the corrosion issues speed up at high temperatures,” he said.

“Internal corrosion makes the pipeline more susceptible to another cause,” he said, adding the pipeline spills occur when internal corrosion is present in conjunction with external cracks or fissures in the seams. Other causes included the freezing and melting of water around the pipeline, expansion during warmer weather, and pressure spikes, he said.

Swift referred to a study in Bakersfield County of a 1000-mile pipeline that was moving dilbit.

“The study showed that oil spilled eight times more often than conventional crude due to exterior corrosion,” he said.

In the Midwest, research gathered there over a four-year period (2008–2012) revealed that tar sands oil spills were occurring three times more often than conventional crude.

Following last week’s meeting with members of the NRDC, Windham Town Manager Anthony “Tony” Plante said, “It was helpful. I am going to be sharing some of my take-aways” from this meeting with the Windham Town Council.

“Your perspective doesn’t change the chemistry” of diluted bitumen, Plante said.

On the east end of Big Sebago Lake, North Windham residents have shoreland property. Also, South Windham residents rely on the drinking water that Portland Water District pumps from Sebago Lake.

Responding to public safety concerns, the Windham Town Council has been on an information-seeking mission. On Jan. 29, the council reviewed data and documents from Environment Maine and the Portland Pipe Line Company.

According to Plante, the council has not yet decided whether or not to support a tar sands oil resolution. Nor could he predict what the next step will be for Windham.

Unreliable cleanup methods

Once released from the pipeline — as happens during a leak or spill, the dilbit becomes chemically altered. Benzene and other gases release into the atmosphere, while the heavy tar sands oil sinks to the bottom of any water source.

According to Swift, the cleanup methods for bitumen have yet to be perfected. He said during the Kalamazoo River spill in Michigan, spill responders from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) learned it was difficult to track the movement of the spill.

“One lake that wasn’t thought to be affected — they later discovered about 80% of the lakebed had been affected,” Swift said. The booms used to remove oil from the surface of water are not effective during a tar sands oil spill, he said.

“Conventional crude is light enough that natural bacteria can remediate it. Natural bacteria can take it out of the eco-system in time,” he said.

“Diluted bitumen doesn’t respond that way. Bacteria cannot remove it from the ecosystem,” Swift said.

Leaks go unnoticed delaying response

Also, tar sands spills are often discovered by the landowner, rather than through regular inspections.

“Eighty percent of leaks over 42,000 gallons are not detected. They are found by landowners,” Swift said, adding in the case of wetlands a leak might be absorbed before it is noticed.

The first responders are often from the town in which the spill occurs, rather than representatives from the oil company.

Waterford Selectman Randy Lessard said the town’s fire department did not have an emergency response plan for a tar sands oil spill.

“The pipeline bursts, they call the fire department. Our town doesn’t have a response plan for an oil spill. Oxford County doesn’t have a plan. So, nobody is prepared,” Lessard said.

In fact, there is nothing on the books outlining how local emergency personnel should respond to a conventional crude oil spill — even with northbound oil currently coursing through one of the three pipelines.

“Honestly, that is one of the key conversations that need to take place. Conventional methods prove to be rather inadequate,” Swift said.

“As this proposal continues to percolate, how serious is the company about the emergency response plan?” Swift said.

Earlier in the discussion, Swift explained the one agency in charge of approving an oil company’s emergency response plan is not the same one that deals with a spill. The plan is approved by a branch of the Department of Transportation, while, the EPA responds to the spill.

Following the Feb. 20 presentation, Casco Town Manager Dave Morton said, “One item that piqued my interest is the seeming lack of response plans for pipeline spills. Two fire chiefs from two different communities said they didn’t have an emergency response plan. That surprised and concerned me.”

“No matter what the issue, the rubber hits the road at the local municipality. The first responders and the municipality may not be responsible for the cleanup. But, the initial response is always a local issue,” he said.

The second item that concerned Morton was the possibility of the pipeline being able to move tars sands oil without any additional approvals.

Taking a stance for public safety

Morton recommended that other communities trying to be proactive when it comes to tar sands oil production should consider a resolution.

“If towns are concerned, touch base with people in state and federal government. Local government has no jurisdiction,” he said.

Currently, the town is following through with its resolution. Casco Town staff has acquired the mailing addresses of politicians all the way up to the U.S. President; and those letters should be sent within the next two weeks, Morton said.

On Tuesday, Swift said it is a good plan to contact the State Department, and request that PPLC go through the application process to get a presidential permit for transporting tar sands oil. He said often an EIS goes hand-in-hand with that process.

Swift concluded his presentation by telling participants “Don’t underestimate the power the public has to change regulations.”

“There is an enormous risk that is not being dealt with in the best manner possible. Are there places we would rather not have oil moved?” Swift said.

Easton said she has asked herself the same question. She isn’t against businesses making a profit, but studies show the value of the Crooked River watershed as well as a high likelihood of a tar sands oil spill.

“We are stopping a train in motion. The public has really made an impact. I would hope that they (Portland Pipe Line Corp.) respond to public demand — if every town along the way made a resolution,” she said.

“It’s not just about Waterford, but every town along the pipeline,” Easton said.

For more information, check out waterford4.me.org. 


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