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Rocky Reception
When a pipeline company fought to bring tar sands oil into scenic South Portland, Maine, city hall fought back.

Tom Blake grew up next to an oil tank. The holding containers owned by various oil companies were so much a part of the Casco Bay waterfront of his South Portland, Maine, youth that in 1970, when he ran for mock city council in high school, his proposals included persuading the Portland Pipe Line Corp. to paint its tanks green and plant pine trees to hide them from public view.

Later Blake joined the South Portland Fire Department, where his responsibilities included inspecting Portland Pipe Line’s main operations once a year and inspecting oil tankers as they arrived in port for off-loading once a day. He came to understand that the local tank farm was more than an eyesore. Today the 100-acre expanse of oil tanks holds some 3.5 million barrels of refined crude, carried in from the Gulf Coast and international refineries. Two pipelines then pump the oil across southern Maine, over the mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont, and under the St. Lawrence River into Montreal.

Mayor Tom Blake welcomes tourists, not tar sands, to his waterfront.South Portland’s mayors are appointed to one-year terms by members of the city council from within their own ranks. Blake, who was appointed mayor for the first time in 2008, began his second term in early 2013. During his first term, Portland Pipe Line applied for a permit that would allow it to reverse the flow of its pipelines and—via an arrangement with Enbridge, the Canadian oil infrastructure giant—begin carrying Canadian tar sands oil into this community of 25,000 people. The company also requested a permit to build smokestacks in Bug Light Park, a picturesque slice of coastal New England that’s one of South Portland’s biggest tourist attractions. Blake opposes both efforts. We spoke recently at his Casco Bay home—just weeks before an election that could decide the fate of his job and his city’s energy future.

How did you learn of Portland Pipe Line’s plan to bring tar sands oil here?

It kind of went under the radar. In fact, when the company applied for its first permit in 2008, there wasn’t a single person that spoke at the planning board against it. Portland Pipe Line received a permit, and then they received a one-year renewal. In 2009 America wasn’t awake to the dangers of tar sands. It was the 2010 Enbridge spill in Kalamazoo [Michigan] that woke everybody up. A million gallons into the river there—and it was this new tar sands product. We started taking a closer look at Enbridge, and what this pipeline would be carrying.

What makes tar sands oil different from the oil that has always come through South Portland?

The problems with tar sands are threefold. Number one is extraction. We have a sustainability resolution that says South Portland will do whatever we can to reduce our footprint on the planet—and promoting a new form of extraction, especially one as damaging as tar sands mining in Alberta, increases our footprint. Number two is transportation. Sending the dirtiest oil on earth through our community violates what I consider to be good health and safety standards for South Portland. Number three is emissions. South Portland has signed on to the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement, which commits our city to enact policies that meet or beat the targets suggested in the Kyoto Protocol. Building smokestacks would obviously worsen the air that our children have to breathe. This is about those kids, and their kids.

So you organized a public hearing.

On March 11, each side—Portland Pipe Line and the Natural Resources Council of Maine—was given a half hour to present. Then we opened up the floor to public comment. We had 450 people in attendance, and 65 spoke. Afterward, the council started exploring our next steps: ordinance changes and pressuring our state representatives to ask the president for a national impact study.

Then, in April, my wife and I went to Arkansas on vacation, to go hiking in the Ozarks. Every morning we would see local headlines about the Exxon oil spill in Mayflower. And the more I read, the more I thought: This is South Portland. That pipeline was so similar to the Portland pipeline—similar ages, similar functions, similar reversals. And every article detailed a different angle: how the spill had impacted fisheries, drinking water, tourism. Portland Pipe Line brags about its track record, but a single tar sands spill in South Portland would destroy this community. Not only the soil and bay and drinking water, but our economy, our tourism—our whole future. When I got back, I caught wind of a citizens’ initiative, a petition to propose what is now being called the Waterfront Protection Ordinance.

You made a major statement by appearing before city hall to receive the petition, and then you and your wife added your signatures. You signed while holding your granddaughter in your arms.

I felt like I’d be denying my own beliefs if I didn’t add my name. There’s been backlash from both sides: some say I’ve drunk the left-wing Kool-Aid, some ask why we didn’t just pass an ordinance as a city council. To the first group I say, just because you’re an elected official doesn’t take away your responsibility to take a stand. To the second group I say that something this substantial needs to go to the voters. The Waterfront Protection Ordinance calls for restricting “further growth or expansion” of the petroleum industry. It allows the industry to continue operating as it does so long as it meets new federal regulations, but it prohibits development. My feeling is, let’s let 25,000 people talk about it.

How did Portland Pipe Line react?

After the petition was submitted, Larry Wilson, the CEO, reached out to try to talk to all the city councilors one-on-one. Several of the councilors wouldn’t talk with him, but I did. I told him: “You could become a leader in America. You could have one of the most liberal towns in America love you, because you converted all your resources into clean energy.” I painted a picture of what each of their properties could become, what their business could look like 50 years down the road. “You’ll have to change your name and your whole way of thinking,” I said. “But eventually you’re going to phase into clean energies, and people will support you.”

Did he show any interest in the vision you outlined for him?

He said, “I don’t care about the future. All I care about is 35 jobs today.” That was his answer. Portland Pipe Line has 35 employees; only one of them lives in South Portland. But even if it were 3,000 jobs, what good are jobs if you can’t breathe the air, or drink the water, or work the soil? Unfortunately, he has joined with others to create a coalition of petroleum-related interests on the waterfront. They’re characterizing the ordinance as anti-business. They’re saying it’s going to shut down commerce on the waterfront, lose us jobs, decrease our property values.

I think just the opposite is true. We can create more jobs. It’s going to make a more vibrant, versatile waterfront. With cleaner energies, our property values will increase. In November, the ordinance comes to a vote, and voters will get to decide on it, and they’ll also get to decide who they want as mayor of South Portland. And that’s the best thing, in my opinion. Let the citizens decide.

On November 5, 2013, voters re-elected Tom Blake to his city council seat. The Waterfront Protection Ordinance was defeated by a margin of 192 votes out of 8,714 cast.

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Ted Genoways, OnEarth's editor-at-large, is the author of The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food (HarperCollins, online at, an examination of Hormel Foods and the great recession. The recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim fellowship, Genoways has contributed to Bloomberg Businessweek, Harper's, Mother Jones, Outside, and his work has appeared in the Best American Travel Writing series. He edited the Virginia Quarterly Review from 2003 to 2012, during which time the magazine won six National Magazine Awards. MORE STORIES ➔