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Conflicting views at Otisfield tar sands forum
OTISFIELD — A forum on the possible transport of "tar sands" oil in the Portland-Montreal Pipeline attracted more than 50 people to the Otisfield Community Hall on May 29, many of whom expressed concern that the move could endanger the environment, in their community and elsewhere.
The forum, which lasted more than two hours, featured both opponents of tar sands and representatives from the Portland Pipeline Company and the Canadian Government.
Both groups were given equal time, 30 minutes, to present their arguments, with a long question and answer period.
A resolution opposing any change in the flow or product of the Portland-Montreal Pipeline and urging a full environmental review of any such proposal to do so is set to be voted on at town meeting June 29.
The pipeline system, which has an 18-inch and 24-inch pipeline, follows the Crooked River through Waterford, Harrison and Otisfield and crosses the river at least six times.
The resolution is part of a campaign to ensure any change in the pipeline will require a federal review, opponents said.
A flurry of similar resolutions have been passed in communities along the pipeline since last summer, when the National Resources Defense Council reported that a plan from 2008 to reverse the flow of the the PMPL to carry tar sands oil from fields in Alberta to terminals in South Portland was being resuscitated.
Tar sands oil, also called “oilsands” and technically referred to as diluted bitumen, is a type of crude oil that is processed from solid or semi-solid deposits of sand clay and water and diluted with a chemical cocktail in order to flow though pipelines.
Dylan Voorhees, from the Natural Resources Council of Maine, told the forum tar sands' composition made it more damaging to the environment and more likely to spill than conventional oil.
“The proponents here want to convince you tar sands oil is safe,” he said. “Real-world experience indicates otherwise.”
If spilled in water, chemicals used to liquefy the oil evaporate, while solids sink, Voorhees said, making clean-up incredibly difficult.
He pointed to a million-barrel pipeline spill in 2010 on the Kalamazoo River Michigan in 2010 that is still being cleaned up.
A PMPL spill of that magnitude could pollute the length of the Crooked River from Bolster's Mills to Lake Sebago, Voorhees said.
Lee Dassler, an Otisfield resident and Western Foothills Land Trust director, noted the Crooked River had some of the state's highest quality water and was the main tributary for Lake Sebago, the primary source of drinking water for greater Portland.
The river, which has innumerable twists and turns, would complicate responding to a spill, Dassler said. She noted that the pipeline, originally built during WWII, would never be permitted today.
Response to a spill was a major concern, Waterford Selectboard Chair Randy Lessard said. To his knowledge, there was no plan for cooperation between the pipeline company and the Town of Waterford in the case of a spill, even of conventional oil.
The National Transportation Safety Board's report of the Kalamazoo disaster indicated spills occurred in pipelines roughly the same age and size as the PMPL, Lessard said.
“This is old infrastructure, like our bridges and our roads,” he said. “Is it going to fail? I don't think anyone can answer that, but if you think about machines in general, they break down over time. If you go long enough, they all break down.”
In rebuttal, Portland Pipeline Company President Larry Wilson urged Otisfield residents not to pass a resolution he said was “discriminatory” against the pipeline company and based on misleading and inaccurate information.
Company representatives were willing to present their views to the public, but were "exhausted" from attending meetings and "rebutting" mistruths and exaggerations, Wilson claimed.
Other communities, like Portland, South Portland and Raymond, had changed their resolutions to be less discriminatory, Wilson said.
He also claimed communities in New Hampshire and Vermont had passed resolutions in favor of the pipeline company, but did not name them.
He also disputed the idea that the pipes were too old to be used for tar sands oil, noting they had been replaced in the 1960s.
Ken Brown, the PPLC engineering manager, told the forum the characteristics of crude derived from tar sands were not substantially different than conventional crude, according to the U.S. State Department.
Even if the pipelines were used for tar sands oil, they would still be subject to regulations that took into account variables like the oil's viscosity and sediment, he said.
Randy Hughes, the PPLC maintenance supervisor, emphasized the company's commitment to safety and said employees were authorized to shut down the pipeline immediately in an emergency.
Regular pipeline cleaning and maintenance were conducted by the company and PPLC contracted with "world-class" clean-up professionals and would be completely prepared in case of a spill, he said.
Wilson iterated that no active plan to pump tar sands oil existed, but the company was open to the idea. He suggested the company's future might be in jeopardy if it was not able to "pursue open and free markets."
The company was already feeling the effects of competition, Wilson said, noting its 18-inch line was not currently in service.
Otisfield voters will decide on the resolution at their town meeting, June 29. Other towns, including Harrison and Bridgton are considering similar resolutions.