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Possible tar sands pipeline concerns local groups
A map of the Portland-Montreal Pipeline (PMPL) route. The pipeline runs through several sensitive ecosystems including the Androscoggin and Crooked Rivers and Sebago Lake. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) claims the pipeline company Enbridge Energy may have plans to reverse the PMPL flow in order to pump tar sands oil from Alberta to ports on the east coast. Concern from local environmental advocates about the threat the plan might pose to local water sources has triggered a series of information sessions and rallies in the area.
OXFORD HILLS — An alleged plan to pump tar sand oil through Western Maine is already coming up against opposition from environmental advocates who say it could endanger sensitive ecosystems in the Oxford Hills area.
A recent Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) report claims Enbridge Energy, a Canadian pipeline company, is planning to reverse the flow of two existing oil pipelines – Enbridge Line 9 and the Portland-Montreal Pipe Line (PMPL) to pump tar sands oil from Alberta to the east coast for export.
The pipeline companies insist there is no such plan for the PMPL.
Nevertheless, the report has sparked concern and opposition from many local residents – according to The Bethel Citizen, two dozen people attended an information session about the pipelines last Tuesday and rallies against tar sands in Maine in multiple locations are scheduled for July 23-25.
Additionally, an information session about the issue sponsored by Loon Echo and Western Foothills land trusts and the Natural Resource Council of Maine (NRCM) has been scheduled for July 19 in Casco.
Two 236-mile PMPL pipes currently carry light to medium crude oil from Portland terminals to Montreal, running through Oxford County.
In 2008, Enbridge and PMPL discussed a plan called "Trailbreaker" to reverse the flow and carry tar sands oil south to Portland.
According to Portland Pipeline Corp. spokesperson Ted O'Meara, the project was abandonded a year later due to poor economic conditions. He says there is no current plan to revive Trailbreaker, and the company is not considering reversing the flow.
Enbridge spokesperson Graham White categorically denies the company is planning to reverse the PMPL.
"I don't know how many times we can say this," White says.
"We've been absolutely clear that Enbridge is not pursuing this project – we're not planning it."
White says the company is pursuing a plan to reverse the flow of its pipeline through Ontario. He says the goal is to bring western U.S. and Canadian crude oil to Montreal refineries.
Despite Enbridge's insistence that there is no proposal, environmental advocates are still concerned that if a plan were to come to fruition the aging PMPL lines – one is 62 years-old – won't be able to handle tar sands oil.
Bitumen, the type of petroleum that comes from tar sands is heavy, dense and viscous – making it much more difficult to transport through pipelines, says Dylan Voorhees, the director of NRCM's clean energy program.
"It can't even be piped in a pipeline in its natural state," says Voorhees. "That'd be like putting peanut butter through a pipeline."
Voorhees explains that in order to be transported, tar sands first need to be diluted with a "toxic slurry" of chemicals.
The NRDC claims the hazardous materials make tar sands more corrosive and its viscosity means more pressure is needed to pump it. As a result, tar sands pipelines are more likely to cause spills.
The group claims that between 2007 and 2010, tar sands pipelines in the mid-west spilled three times more oil per mile than the U.S. average.
White disputes the NRDC's claim. He says the company has piped heavier products safely through Canadian pipelines for many years.
The age of the pipeline doesn't matter, White contends, as long as it is well-maintained and regularly inspected.
But Voorhees says that when spills do occur, they can be disastrous.
"Unlike normal oil, which typically would float ... it sinks into the wetlands and the river beds and creek beds," he explains.
"It becomes submerged oil which is ... really impossible to clean up. You can dredge it out, but you can't get all of it."
Voorhees points to a 2010 spill at an Enbridge pipeline near Marshall Michigan.
A burst pipeline spilled over 840,000 gallons of tar sands oil into local wetlands and streams, eventually making its way into the Kalamazoo River.
Thirty miles of the river were closed off during an ongoing clean-up effort that has cost $800 million so far.
An investigation into the spill by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), placed the blame squarely on Enbridge claiming the company inaccurately accessed the structural integrity of the pipeline and allowed oil to spill from the damaged pipe for 17 hours before reacting.
For people on the Crooked River, which runs through several communities in Oxford Hills, the possibility of a spill of that magnitude is a nightmare.
Lee Margolin has lived next to the Crooked River in Harrison for years and has a close relationship with the waterway. "It's like a neighbor," he says.
The PMPL crosses the Crooked six times – Margolin lives a stone's throw away from one of the crossings.
He worries a spill in the line could send oil gushing into the waterway, recognized as one the the cleanest in the state.
"I realize that energy concerns are top notch these days," Margolin says.
"But let's be rational here, the Crooked River is a well recognized ... gem in this area. It's not a big watershed and ecosystem and development would snuff it out."
An oil spill on the Crooked could also have a wider effect – as Western Foothills Land Trust Director Lee Dassler explains, the river provides much of the flow – around 40 percent – into Sebago Lake, the water source for 200,000 people in greater Portland.
WFLT has been deeply involved in the Crooked River initiative, an ongoing effort to protect the watershed. WFLT and other groups have already secured miles of conservation easements along the river.
Bart Hague agrees that Crooked provides a critical resource to Sebago – the river's water quality is rated AA, the highest rating under the Federal Clean Water Act.
"Protecting the Crooked River Watershed would be very critical," says Hague.
"It's not attenuated by going through any lakes or ponds ... water in the Crooked River is a direct shot ... into Lake Sebago."
Hague also lives along the Crooked in Harrison. He says a mile of pipeline runs through his land and at some points it is only 18 inches under the soil.
Hague is concerned about the possibility of the pipeline reversal, but both he and Margolin say their past relationship with PMPL has been very positive and the company has been quick to address their concerns.
Although the reversal plan might not be in the cards, Margolin, Hague and others continue their efforts to protect the Crooked from possible environmental damage, whatever the cause.
"You always have to be vigilant," Margolin says. "When it's right in your backyard, how much more incentive do you need?"
The July 19 information session will be held at the Crooked River Adult Community Education Center, 1437 Poland Spring Road, Casco, from 6-7:30 p.m.